Imagine that an extinction-level event that threatens the fate of humanity is unfolding right before your eyes. You there? Good, now imagine the heart wrenching moment where you know you have to break up with your partner. While it is unlikely that you’ve actually lived through both of these extraordinarily scenarios in the same lifetime, chances are your imagination is likely to associate a grandiose quality to the first scenario and a smaller, more contained quality to the second. In writer and director Piers Black’s play Catching Comets, audiences witness the interplay of these two scenarios – a disaster movie about the end of the world and a rom-com about falling in (and out of) love – each playing out at the same time. After an acclaimed run at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2019, this one-man show comes to London with a week-long run at the Pleasance Theatre, after which it will travel to Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, Theatre Clwyd in Mold and other venues.
The story introduces us to Toby (played by Alastair Michael), a young man who works at a local observatory and tracks the motion of celestial bodies. His personal and professional lives are in a bit of a rut, with awkward romantic encounters and uneasy workplace relationships. When Toby discovers a deadly comet shooting towards Earth, he embarks on a mission to save humanity from a gruesome end. When his initial efforts to alert the high command are met with reluctance and indifference, he transforms into a full-blown superhero action figure who busts out picture-perfect fight moves and quote-worthy catchphrases. Interspersed with these high-action scenes straight out of a Hollywood blockbuster, is another story from Toby’s life where he meets someone special at a friend’s party. From the magical first encounter and charming journey of shared interests to an eventual clash of opinions and bitter arguments, this story brings out Toby’s inner anxieties and hang-ups as he struggles to let this person into the emotional walls he’s drawn around himself. The cleverly layered intermixing of the two different worlds allows us to appreciate the vast range in vulnerability, empathy and confidence a person might have in themself, highlighting how our self-perception may be visibly different from our actual persona. The show also makes us reflect on how we as an audience engage with time in the mediums of theatre and cinema, the former grounded in a more realistic progression of cause and effect (where internalization follows externalization) whilst the latter lends itself to quick jumps (where externalization takes precedence). The importance of “duration” of any moment, incident or story in our life is something that we continue to grapple with, especially when we are retelling it, skipping the unpleasant parts altogether and slowing down whilst telling the parts that make us feel good about ourselves.
Black’s writing is sharp-witted and engaging from the get-go, immersing us into the cinematic themes of the writing with references and call-backs from action movie screenplays, which are complemented by a stellar production design and a well-crafted acting performance. Michael delivers a wholesome performance as Toby, effectively using movement and direct address to establish a rapport with the audience and bring out the character’s self-doubt and fantastical slips into the different stories. Supported by Chi-San Howard’s movement direction, Michael is successful at re-creating the grandiose physicality and alpha dog personality we’ve come to associate with Hollywood heroes, which further allows us him to bring out Toby’s unassuming everyday movement quality even more. Matt Leventhall’s dynamic light design gives weight to these transitions in space and time with a well-blended use of front-of-house and on-stage lighting elements. Mark Harris’s precisely packed sound design not only punctuated these shifts audibly but also helped different scenes develop an atmospheric (read: aural) presence. Natalie Johnson’s set design makes efficient use of a tight-knit space and allows for visual narrative cues (such as the moving comet) to ground the audience about what’s coming up next. The succinct use of live microphone to emphasise some of the text with a distinct vocal quality fits well with Black’s decision to have Michael rely on his own spoken voice to car different characters.
To summarize, Catching Comets is a funny and poignant exploration of one man up against the universe, both the one in the sky and the one in his head. In many ways, the inbound comet is a metaphor for important conversations we know we need to have but keep putting off for another day.
You can watch Catching Comets at the Pleasance Theatre N7 9EF. Read more and book tickets at this link https://www.pleasance.co.uk/event/catching-comets-1
Reviewer: Gaurav Singh Nijjer
Reviewed: 14th September 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★