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A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky

David Eldridge, Robert Holman and Simon Stephens
Lyric, Hammersmith
(2010)

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If you belonged to a family like the one at the centre of this collaborative effort, the news that the world was going to end in three weeks might come as something of a relief.

For close to 2¾ hours, we are able to observe their navel gazing, which leads inexorably towards unhappiness and, unexpectedly at the end to end all ends, reconciliation and catharsis.

Their lives are recreated by a writing team of David Eldridge, Robert Holman and Simon Stephens who at times are given away by their individual predilections and at others blend seamlessly. Even so, in the final analysis they might be likened to three cricketers circling under a towering hit, each waiting for one of the others to do something heroic and unforgettable before the ball lands tamely between them.

The five Benton brothers span what would be three generations in most families, everything from close to Senior Citizen to schoolboy but each is burdened by failures seemingly imbibed with their mother's sour milk, itself inherited from a sexed-up, young grandmother burdened by guilt.

Their feelings are as bare as the circular arrangement of boards on which their lives play out. The explanation lies in history, seen through visitations by long-dead grandma and the Jewish refugee for whom she forsook her charitably-minded but violent, older husband.

Her failure to love Ann Mitchell's Margaret, the mother to the quintet, carries on so that while eldest brother William (Nigel Cooke) is consumed by cancer, the others have the mental equivalent, tormenting themselves with depression and in some cases drugs.

The only light of hope in the play comes with the youngsters. Lyric favourite Harry McEntire of Punk Rock and Spring Awakening fame plays youngest brother Philip released by impending global destruction to admit incipient homosexuality. His nephew, the equally talented Rupert Simonian as Roy, grandson of Alan Williams' gloomiest of the lot Jake, turns out to be witty and almost hopeful unlike his psychotic, junkie mother, Kirsty Bushell as Nicola.

In the end though, it is no great disaster when the lights go out forever on a play that is never as explosive as the title promises. Compared to H.G. Wells vision of global destruction in War of the Worlds, as developed by his almost namesake Orson, A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky is bland fare that seems to have far less to do with millennial angst than familial introspection.

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If it is not overly-presumptuous, this is also a chance to pay a tribute to Benedict Nightingale, who closes a distinguished career with his Times review of this play. He is a genuinely good man as well as a fine critic and we wish him a long and happy retirement.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher