Apollo 13: The Dark Side of The Moon

Torben Betts
The Original Theatre Company

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Michael Salami (Haise), Tom Chambers (Swigert) & Christopher Harper (Lovell)
Michael Salami (Haise), Christopher Harper (Lovell) & Tom Chambers (Swigert)
Tom Chambers (Swigert), Christopher Harper (Lovell) & Michael Salami (Haise)

Torben Betts has written Apollo 13 during lockdown, carefully ensuring that the actors and backstage crew can remain socially distanced throughout filming. Not only that, but he has also incorporated a notion of the trials and tribulations of “the pestilence” from which we are all suffering into a script that runs for just over one hour.

It opens as two elderly American men are preparing for an interview to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the ill-fated launch in April 1970 of the pride of their country’s space mission, Apollo 13. Directed by Alastair Whatley and Charlotte Peters on behalf of The Original Theatre Company, what follows is a gripping re-enactment of that flight, cleverly acted out from safe spaces including actors’ homes and reputedly even their bedrooms.

The outer-space atmosphere is conveyed by a combination of computer-generated images, special effects, for example conveying absence of gravity, and a pleasantly ethereal soundtrack composed by Sophie Cotton.

Philip Franks and Geoff Aymer play Jim Lovell and Fred Haise in old age running through the history with Poppy Roe in the role of interviewer Patricia Cooper as part of a series under the banner of “The Age of Isolation”.

Soon enough, the drama tracks back to the spring of 1970 with the two men respectively portrayed by Christopher Harper and Michael Salami, joined in the capsule cockpit by Tom Chambers as the third astronaut, Jack Swigert. Constantly led by the offscreen voice of Jenna Augen’s Capcom, they set off to boldly go into the unknown realms of outer space, following in the footsteps of 12 previous sets of Apollo astronauts, whose trips were largely smooth and uneventful.

However, that is not the stuff of theatrical drama, which tends to prefer mishaps, disasters and a heightened aura of excitement.

Blended with historic film of the real Apollo 13, the younger acting trio are wholly convincing and you could easily believe that, rather than Zooming from their bedrooms, they were hurtling into outer space in painfully close proximity to each other.

A mysterious, explosive malfunction in a car on a side road would be a cause for concern; the equivalent in a space rocket that is over halfway to the moon, eliciting the legendary phrase “Houston, we’ve had a problem”, could be fatal. It is certainly alarming, which is apparent from the reactions of each of the astronauts, seen in painfully close close-up.

What viewers then witness is a reminder of the men’s joyride around the dark side of the moon, trapped in total silence and darkness in a crippled spacecraft or, in their evocative vernacular, “a giant flying missile” packed with “7½ million pounds of high explosive”. As the drama plays out, the men have time to discuss their own lives and even foreshadow the Black Lives Matter movement half a century ahead of time.

While there may occasionally be an excess of navel-gazing and sentimentality, Apollo 13: The Dark Side of The Moon tells a compelling story. To do so, it makes highly effective use of the online media currently available to enterprising directors, complemented by some strong acting, particularly from the trio depicting the brave astronauts as they orbit the moon, uncertain whether they have a future.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher