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Rocket to the Moon, National Theatre

Clifford Odets
Directed by Angus Jackson
Courtesy of the National Theatre
The National’s season just past was absolutely second to none. With such shows as Frankenstein, The Holy Rosenbergs, and more recently One Man, Two Guvnors it has really been a triumphant few months for Nicholas Hytner and his team. Perhaps that is why their production of Rocket to the Moon went somewhat less smoothly, with its run being cut short at the last minute. Indeed, we saw it on its final performance, which makes this review rather academic! Angus Jackson’s revival of Clifford Odets’ play about a New York dentist in the 1930s was a good show; it was well acted, it was well designed and it got the most out of Odets’ rather dry script. That being said, it is easy to understand why this show was overlooked by the punters: it was just not as good as the rest of the National’s exceptional season. 
The first thing to be said about Rocket to the Moon is that Odets’ script is extremely wordy, and subsequently it is somewhat turgid. In essence, the play is about a middle-aged dentist who is forced to choose between is possessive and bossy wife and his sexy, naïve secretary who is half his age. Somehow, this story becomes three hours long as the dentist goes back and forward in his mind during the height of the summer months. Unfortunately, Rocket to the Moon was not as dramatic as Frankenstein, not as funny as One Man, Two Guvnors, and not as moving as The Holy Rosenbergs. It was also longer than all of them by a good 15 minutes. 
Of its own accord, Rocket to the Moon had numerous strengths. Joseph Millson’s performance as the cowardly and weak dentist Ben Stark was believable and proficiently delivered. Keeley Hawes, in her first stage outing, also delivered a respectable performance, despite her poorly penned and rather boring character. The star of the show was Jessica Raine as the young and impressionable secretary Chloe Singer. Her performance was really excellent, as she created a wonderfully attractive and innocent character with whom the audience instantly connected. Additionally, the actors did get the most out of Odets’ script: Raine and Millson created some almost unbearable sexual tension towards the end of the first half, which allowed the production to remain reasonably engaging. Anthony Ward’s design was also luxuriously detailed, with the fully furnished dental surgery being particularly impressive. 
Despite its strengths however, we left the National at the end of Rocket to the Moon and forgot about it shortly afterwards. The bottom line for this production was that, despite its competent delivery, it wasn’t very interesting, and for that I have to blame the script. Keeley Hawes was on the whole a disappointment, not through any fault of her own, but because her character had no meat to it. It is a shame that an actress such as herself wasn’t given the opportunity to stretch her wings in a more challenging and interesting role. Jessica Raine’s performance was a highlight, but even that wasn’t enough to lift this production to the next level. 
Rocket to the Moon was a reasonably enjoyable evening of theatre. However, it didn’t deliver anything memorable or anything that was sparklingly brilliant. It was well staged, well performed and as enjoyable as Odets’ script allowed it to be. However it just couldn’t compete with the rest of the National’s, or indeed the rest of London’s season of magnificent productions.
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Rocket to the Moon ran at the National Theatre until 9th June 2011.

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