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#173 Rocket to the Moon

May 6, 2011

Keeley Hawes, struggling manfully with a 1930s working-class East Coast US accent. And winning. Just.

Desperation! Dentistry! Depression-era slang! Keeley Hawes! Only one of these things is making people watch Rocket to the Moon, the 1938 play about a hapless dentist’s desire for his naive young secretary. The NT has revived this play by  left-wing-polemicist-turned-cynic Clifford Odets, famous in his own time, but barely remembered now.

Hawes plays the shrewish wife Belle, whose appearances bookend the play. The protagonist appears to be her milksop dentist husband Ben, but as the action unfolds (in a single set, a cinematically authentic-looking dentist’s waiting room) we find our attention and sympathies moving to his new secretary Cleo, a fresh-faced fantastist who’s yearning for a full life ‘with all the trimmings’.

The waiting room simmers in the summer heat. Patients are thin on the ground in 1938. Everybody’s got troubles. And Cleo electrifies everyone she meets – but this isn’t about sex so much as it is about freedom. Young Cleo’s a cool breeze of hope, rather than a hot tamale.

Chuck in a handful of other men, including Ben’s bullish father-in-law, a lecherous celeb and a failed, suicidal dentist colleague – all of whom see Cleo as an escape route from their own dismal problems – and the stage is set for a collision course between dreams and responsibilities, desires and defeats.

If all this sounds a bit airless, bear in mind that it’s leavened by some extraordinary lines. Odets has an ear for the hidden magic words of everyday speech, especially when it’s used to conjure dreams and illusions. Ben’s father-in-law Mr Prince gets the best lines, in a barnstorming performance by Nicholas Woodeson. Mr Prince is a self-made mensch, an uneasy, voluble man, unwilling to surrender life to the young and still angrily fighting his corner with a desperate joy that’s been leached out of the other characters. “Take a rocket to the moon! Explode!” he urges. When asked why he doesn’t speak to his daughter, he booms: “I am the American King Lear!” But even his bombast can’t win him what he really wants.

Anyway. Although Rocket to the Moon is compelling, this is more a conscientious exercise in modern theatrical archaeology than a truly relevant revival. It’s on until June 21st – if what you’ve read makes you want to go, good for you. If not, hell, nobody’s gonna die.

BONUS! Check this out – in a act of breathtaking journalistic imbecility, the Guardian asked a real dentist to review Rocket to the Moon.

“Overall, it would have been more absorbing to see lots of patients,” he says, “and the dentist treating them: that’s where the real drama of dentistry lies.”

I look forward to his review of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: “I could have wished for more scenes of rounding up cows; that’s where the real drama of being a cowboy lies.” FFS.

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