The Cosmonaut's Last Message to the Woman He Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union

David Greig
Donmar Warehouse
(2005)

Scotsman David Greig is one of the most ambitious playwrights writing today. He fits more ideas into a play lasting two-and-a-half hours than some novelists achieve in hundreds of pages. You sometimes come out reeling from the bombardment but also having learned much about the way that we live. If this sounds heavy, it isn't because his plays rarely lose their sense of humour.

He is currently in a purple patch as play after play is produced in both England and Scotland. Already, Pyrenees, part sequel, part companion piece to The Cosmonaut's Last Message... is running at the Menier Chocolate Factory and the RSC premieres The American Pilot in Stratford later in the month.

This play was first produced in London very successfully by Vicky Featherstone, Greig's new boss at the National Theatre of Scotland, for Paine's Plough some six years ago. However, that was on a very different budget in the Lyric Hammersmith's tiny Studio.

This makeover under director Tim Supple is remarkable for the staging using Melly Still's clever design, which takes us into a starry outer space filled with weightless Russians but also utilises a floor that hides embedded beds, of both sleeping and flowering varieties. It culminates in a stunningly beautiful image of joint loss.

Set in Scotland, the plot features the middle-aged couple, civil servant Keith and speech therapist Viv, who are seen in Pyrenees and gives their back-story. He is suffering from a mid-life crisis brought on by a quest for love, satiated by a teenage Russian pole dancer of exceptional beauty and independence of mind. Viv begins her search for his soul even before he walks into the sea, Reggie Perrin-style, and disappears to Skye.

Nastasja, the dancer is looking for someone to replace her lost father, a cosmonaut who continues to orbit the earth with a colleague, twelve years after he left his six-year-old daughter in Siberia. She still talks to a flashing light in the stars when she needs reassurance. His life is filled with boredom, despite the efforts of his colleague, the man recording the Message of the title.

The main actors are all doubled and in each case, they play second characters who shed light on the originals. Thus Michael Pennington is a retired French space scientist as well as Keith; Anna Madeley (renewing a partnership with Pennington that was so successful in Colder Than Here) an idealistic, pregnant policewoman and Nastasja; and Brid Brennan a hard, silent tart who might even be Viv, the woman who "help(s) people who can't communicate".

These three actors are all wonderful while Stuart McGugan, playing a succession of barmen from around the world, with Paul Higgins and Sean Campion as the comic cosmonauts from the significantly-named Harmony spaceship, at their best in a weightless boxing bout, bring extra humour into play. Tom Goodman-Hill in the role of a characterless Norwegian banker who rescues Nastasja but then helps to prove that wealth does not bring automatic happiness does not let the side down either.

On one level, this play explores numerous complex ideas about science and psychology. On another, the main themes are quests for love and identity and the difficulties that we have in communicating with each other. It has the depth and complexity of a self-referential novel, frequently shedding light on ideas from oblique angles.

The Cosmonaut's Last Message... is a tremendous cerebral experience but also works as an entertainment. The chance to see it followed by Pyrenees is far too good to miss.

Philip Fisher