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Moon Landing

Written, composed and directed by Stephen Edwards
Derby Playhouse
(2007)

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It was "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind", yet until now no one's tried to capture one of our greatest triumphs - walking on the moon - on the stage.

But Derby Playhouse doesn't shirk from a challenge. Earlier this year the theatre was responsible for the European premiere of Johnno, an adaptation of a seminal Australian novel. Derby's joint artistic director Stephen Edwards achieved what several Australians had failed to do - come up with a stage version of the book. I described the adaptation as "little short of a masterpiece".

Now Edwards has devised a musical drama about NASA's historic Apollo 11 mission to the moon.

Edwards' latest work is superbly acted, well sung and ingeniously staged. I didn't feel the awesomeness watching Moon Landing as I did witnessing Johnno: at two hours and 40 minutes it seems to me too long; some of the songs didn't hold my attention as well as they might; I was baffled by most of the technical language during the space missions; and excitement seems to have been sacrificed in certain parts for tension. The best example of this is the actual moon landing which to me seems too drawn-out.

Edwards first had the idea for Moon Landing ten years ago and has thoroughly researched the subject. He bases the work around Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, who suffered from depression. It leads Edwards to pose the question: how do you return to earth when you've walked on the moon?

Actors who were appearing at Derby earlier this year in Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along were asked to do workshops on Moon Landing and six of the company have returned for the new production.

Playhouse regular Glenn Carter - he's appeared in Sondheim's Into the Woods and Company as well as Merrily - gives probably his finest performance in Derby to date as the rebel Aldrin.

You really feel for him when he's overlooked for earlier missions, you're elated when he is chosen for Apollo 11 and you share his anxiety when his obsession with becoming the first man on the moon is thwarted.

Once the mission is over, Carter is striking as the depressive who can't sort out his personal life and feels inadequate compared with his co-astronauts who are much better public speakers. He's more nervous addressing Congress than he was going to the moon.

Glyn Kerslake is excellent as the solid, dependable, loyal Neil Armstrong who even tries to deflect attention from his own achievement by claiming that he and Aldrin were jointly the first to step onto the moon. Kerslake gives the character great credibility; he's the perfect foil to Aldrin and keeps his head whatever the circumstances.

There's a strong cast of 28 including seven community-theatre actors and seven children, not forgetting a quintet of musicians ably led by Mary McAdam.

They all do a superb job with Edwards' music which is heavily influenced by Sondheim - intriguing lyrics and songs that you won't be singing in the shower. Edwards' tunes aren't quite as complicated as Sondheim's, although one in which everyone asks the astronauts what it was like to walk on the moon sticks in the memory long after the performance is over.

Dan Potra's design is clever and not at all contrived - you almost believe the Gemini and Apollo craft are jetting off into space. And having mission control where the first few rows of seats would normally be located gives the feeling that the ground crew are detached from the space missions.

The Playhouse is certainly reaching for the stars with Moon Landing: it'll be the 40th anniversary of the Apollo mission in 2009 and the theatre is exploring whether the show could be staged in Houston. In this critic's opinion, if there were a bit of pruning and tightening up of the script and songs, Moon Landing might have a bigger buzz and be ready for blast off.

"Moon Landing" runs until October 6th

Reviewer: Steve Orme