Signals

Eve Cowley, Immie Davies, Elin Schofield and Isaac Whiting, with additional material by Trent Burton and Melinda Burton
The Cosmic Shambles Network Limited in association with Footprint Theatre
The Studio, York Theatre Royal

This collaboratively-created two-hander is made of slender means but is a gently satisfying rumination on humans’ need to reach out into the unknown, and a consideration of what might happen were we ever to find someone reaching back to us.

The simple set implies a pokey, windowless room from which two analysts work on the search for extra-terrestrial signals, scanning and logging output from a powerful radio telescope. Over the course of this 50-minute show, we see snippets of scenes between the pair, from their first entry into the room to their developing relationship of games, in-jokes, and the endless making of tea and consuming of Jaffa Cakes.

One of the scientists (Eve Cowley) emerges as a more laid-back, jokey presence, sceptical of the chances of ever finding extra-terrestrial life but doing her job nonetheless—albeit at times half-heartedly. The other (Immie Davies) is both more insistent on following “the protocol” and more convinced that their search won’t all be for nothing.

Both of these performers create likeable stage personas and their interplay seems honed of intimate understanding of each other’s rhythms. There’s a bitty, repetitive, overlapping pseudo-realism to their delivery, rather than much by way of finely-tuned word-craft. Scant character detail is offered, and indeed there are absurdist echoes of Waiting for Godot or Sartre’s No Exit: at one point, the question “where are we?” is answered, semi-jokingly, with “in hell”.

The quips and games between the two drive the production forward and, while depicting the banal and boring work of the search, it manages to engage with a range of questions about our need to believe the truth is out there, as well as our fear of finding out we’re right. The show does this with a lightness of touch and an ease that doesn’t feel overly crafted.

In the context of the Theatre Royal’s somewhat unforgiving Studio, the production—in particular the design and staging—felt a little underpowered to me: the props and costume seemed quite basic and there was little in the way of shifts to the lighting state, stage imagery or sound design. Perhaps the production would feel more substantial if (as it has been) it’s offered with a talkback afterwards, or as part of a wider programme of science-related shows and events. But even without that context, there’s a pleasure to watching these performers making the text’s interplay look easy and a range of interesting ideas, lightly and nimbly dealt with.

One of the most engaging aspects of the play is the implication that this pair is merely a small cog in the whole network of people involved in operating just this one telescope: even to move it, they have to request authority from unseen others. The telescope itself is part of a larger array, and the scientific quest for signs from above is dependent on the wider network of other such teams across the globe. Yet the pair with whom we spend our fifty minutes are all-too human, with all the fun, boredom, tension and banter that implies.

Reviewer: Mark Smith