Walking off alone into the unknown, embracing gluttony and sex, spending time with loved ones, holing up in a place of worship memorising scriptures and chanting prayers; how would you spend your time on earth if you knew the universe would cease to exist in a few short weeks?
Writers David Eldridge, Robert Holman and Simon Stephens ask just that in their collaborative piece A Thousand Stars Explode In The Sky and reach an entirely different conclusion, with an unusual family reunion, a funeral, Spanish cheese and murder high on the list of their characters’ priorities.
With a ‘cosmic string’ set to tear the universe into a thousand pieces, five brothers, ranging in age from 14 to 50, make their own journey to their home farm where their mother begrudgingly waits, determined to make the effort she knows the emotionally defected men she has raised will never make themselves.
The youngest Philip, played by a wide-eyed, sweet-faced Harry McEntire, wonders what it would have been like to have slept with someone; his oldest brother William (Nigel Cooke), dying of hereditary cancer, wonders the same. 48-year-old Jake (Alan Williams) attempts to reunite his grandson Roy (Rupert Simonian) with his wayward daughter Nicola (Kirsty Bushell), who, wielding a knife and bouncing nervously from one foot to the other with the desperate eyes of an addict, acts more like a teenager than her own estranged son. Lastly the pessimistic and weak James (Pearce Quigley) searches for their absent brother Edward (Andrew Sheridan) who plays the role of the apocalyptic tramp, living on the streets and disappearing for years on end, yet possessing more life and knowledge than any of his more settled brothers.
Settled isn’t a word that fits well however with the Benton family. Each member believes themselves to be on their own independent journey, having separated themselves from their loveless upbringing. With blame and hate comes a lack of forgiveness which binds them together in a bitter, family history that is not forgotten in the face of a mere cosmic disaster. As cold as they are with each other, and as many physical and emotional boundaries as they build, odd moments of love burn through with uneasy-to-witness intimacy. The image of the mother washing her bent over, dying son is a rare moment of human kindness in the Lyric Hammersmith’s bleak offering.
While the drama centres on the dysfunctional family, A Thousand Stars Explode In The Sky is peppered with ideas for how such a universal tragedy would be met. In the playwrights’ minds people still choose to work, trains still run, dead birds fall from the sky and sex, rather than death or fear, is in the fore point of their minds. Past becomes present, as the teenagers witness Vikings walking with them and are introduced to the roots of their family tree.
Most importantly, for one split second before the end of the world, the family are finally emotionally entwined as their hearts and minds work as one and family ties are revealed to be stronger then they would have liked to have believed.