Dental surgeries: they are the ideal place for a drama to unfold. The innate sense of fear, foreboding, tension and pain combined with the humdrum dullness of it all. Why aren’t more plays set in these medical monstrosities?
Rocket To The Moon’s sweltering salon of salivation is more monotonous than most. It is the kind of surgery where dentists go to be forgotten, to quietly spend their time polishing dentures and fixing fillings until they move to the great waiting room in the sky.
Here the once ground-breaking Ben Stark goes about his daily business, quietly tinkering with teeth, never thinking for himself while always under the watchful guidance of his domineering, all-powerful wife Belle. That is until his world is shaken by the arrival of new secretary Cleo, whom his father-in-law – a pint-sized bombastic Lucifer on Stark’s shoulder – suggests he gives a thorough examination. With such whisperings life, for better or worse, is breathed back into this stale world.
Odets’s drama is full of the pain of loss – of ambition, talent, dreams, love – and the disturbing sense that we all forget to live our lives, absent-mindedly going through the motions rather than engaging and feeling. Is feeling pain, distress, worry or anger better than feeling nothing? Yes, if it is a gateway to engaging fully with life again.
Ashes To Ashes and Upstairs Downstairs actress Keeley Hawes is the big name on the cast list, swapping the screen for the stage for the first time. Playing the supporting role of Stark’s wife, she is able to ease into her stage career with a part that requires strong characterisation in big bold strokes, imbuing the ball-breaking all-commanding wife with just the right level of deeply hidden vulnerability, while leaving Joseph Millson (Stark) and Jessica Raine (Cleo) to lead the show.
Raine is the latest young actress to rise through the ranks at the National Theatre, being nurtured for great things by the South Bank institution. As the exuberant fantasist Cleo she emerges more than ever as a leading lady to watch. Millson, straight from playing alcoholic gambler Raoul in Love Never Dies, is a deliciously awkward dentist whose expressions – never quite smiling, never quite frowning, face an ever-shifting treacle of emotion – present a man who, after so many years of disinterest, doesn’t really know how to live any more.
It is somewhat surprising, then, that in a play where everyone seems desperate to be loved and to feel alive, and where loss and despair seem to be the norm, that actually, despite everything that happens, it concludes with a tangible sense of optimism. The pain is worth it… just like having root canal work.