Thursday, February 16, 2017

Review: 'Summer Nights in Space' at Vault Festival, 15th February 2017

In space no-one can hear you scream. But, perhaps, they can hear you sing. This is the conceit behind Hannah Elsy Productions' latest, Summer Nights in Space. Hopes were high - I very much enjoyed the company's diabolically bizarre The Quentin Dentin Show, and a brief n' breezy musical set in outer space sounds promising.

And so we meet John Spartan (Matthew Jacobs Morgan), drifting aimlessly through space on a lengthy, dull mission accompanied only by a bored-sounding computer. Spartan had spent his childhood gazing up at the stars, dreaming of a life spent exploring the cosmos and subsequently enrolling in space school. Now that he's achieved his goals he's growing disillusioned, worried that his lengthy isolation is causing the first symptoms of dreaded 'space madness'.

Fortunately a couple of things are on the way to spice up the void. First comes a distress signal, then an alien (Candice Palladino) visitation and finally the return of Spartan's space-rival 'Lethal Space Bizzle' (Benjamin Victor), who throws Spartan's world upside down.

I've always been a fan of the blue collar, working stiff space adventure. This loose genre runs the gamut from Alien all the way to Red Dwarf, stopping off along the way at Dark Star, Silent Running and Moon. I love how it gently subverts the classical Star Trek vision of space as ordered and clean in favour of getting a bit greasy, (probably) accurately predicting interstellar travel as more equivalent to manning an oil rig than running a gleaming research station.  

But sadly, for all its promise, Summer Nights in Space never comes together. Part of this is down to a series of unfortunate technical mishaps. The start was delayed to iron out some glitches with the rear projection, but even with this it never quite worked properly. Video was confined to a small off-centre square with a Macbook taskbar at the top of the screen. 

Then the video was out of sync with the audio. Then a live camera bit didn't work. Then the voiceover audio cut out. Then the sound levels (particularly the treble) went way out of whack, causing genuine pain whenever anyone said anything loudly. On top of all that, the entire show was underscored by an annoying buzzy hum from a loose connection somewhere. Did the tech crew flatten a black cat on their way here?

But, even were everything to have gone swimmingly, the show simply isn't funny or entertaining enough. None of this is the fault of Jacobs Morgan, who seems to be taking it upon himself single-handedly save the show through sheer energy and force of will, but even his titanic efforts can't get around that there's just not that much going on here. Even the usually reliable Benjamin Victor comes unstuck in an excruciatingly annoying part that aims for Die Antwoord but lands squarely in Ali G territory (fortunately he's much better as the voice of the computer).

Creator Henry Carpenter talks in the programme about how "thirteen months ago, the 'show' consisted of three songs about space, which I performed myself wearing a bicycle helmet." I can't help but think this show might have been more entertaining if it'd stayed stripped down, leaving the audience's imagination to fill in the blanks rather than treacherous tech.

I saw The Quentin Dentin Show twice. Once in an embryonic form and once with the rough edges sanded away to leave a sleek, polished and completely entertaining night out. I can only hope the same happens with Summer Nights in Space - all the parts are present and correct, but this rocketship never achieves lift-off.


Summer Nights in Space is at Vault Festival until 19 February. Tickets here.

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