I really love the concept for The First. What better way to crystalize the question of our legacies than with two astronauts, Rose and Simeon, on their way to be the first humans on Mars? The first to speak, the first to walk, the first even to evacuate their bowels on this red planet; everything they do there will instantaneously become momentous. Contrasted with them are two speech writers, Alisha and Marcus, left back on Earth to work on the President’s speech about this Mars mission, each struggling with a tarnished reputation and grappling with the knowledge that if the mission goes as planned their words will probably be forgotten. However, a disaster would mean their words go down in history.
The two different relationships are an interesting device, and the actors playing all four roles (Katrina Allen as Rose and Alisha, and Daniel Ward as Simeon and Marcus) switch deftly between them. The change in each actor’s role is marked intelligently by a change in accent. Both take their turn at being an American, with accents spot on: although, as an American, it would be remiss not to mention that Americans don’t call football ‘American’ football unprompted (because what the Brits do is soccer). Small details aside, it’s clear these two not only have their accent work down, but convincingly portray quite distinctive characters by subtly altering their mannerisms and movement.
There are a lot of interesting concepts in this show, but the emotional pacing is questionable. Both relationships begin with such a high, combative energy that they left me uncomfortably on edge, and the characters don’t have very many places to go once things really start to hit the fan. The initial ‘friendly banter’ between our two astronauts was unconvincing, coming off as deliberate attempts to make the other uncomfortable, so it took a while for me to believe they were friends. The speech writers’ scenes were even more questionable. Marcus begins his working relationship with Alisha with such hostility that I thought we must see him change for the better: as a main character, where else could he go? But as he plagiarises Alisha’s work, threatens to ruin her career and bears down on her with an out of nowhere repetition of “hit me or kiss me!”, I began to actively dread these scenes.
If I could change one thing about The First I would take advantage of the intimacy the small venue space provides. The actors are unnecessarily projecting like pros in there. Even sitting in the back row, I felt like I was getting yelled at. A normal volume would have made the gentle moments more interesting and created contrast for the actual bursts of emotions to gain power, instead of it all being lost in a barrage of sound.
About halfway through the show, there is an exquisite moment of quietness as Rose exits the craft in order to make repairs. As she floats there in front of us, it’s a welcome breather from everything else and showcases the potential beauty The First has to offer.
Written by: Barry McStay
Directed by: Emily Jenkins
Produced by: Elizabeth Benbow
Booking Link: https://vaultfestival.com/whats-on/the-first/
Booking Until: 16 February 2020