Review: Lights! Planets! People! at the Norwich Arts Centre

Intergalactic missions, high-tech rockets and a failed power point: writer and director Molly Naylor cleverly captures the complexities of modern space science through the lens of Maggie, an astronomer living with bipolar disorder. Emotionally moving and intellectually stimulating, this multimedia one-woman show had a unique angle on two very topical issues, and sensitively explored how the personal and the professional come into conflict.

When Maggie embarks on a new mission to inspire an assembly of young women into science, she is confronted with a host of new anxieties. As a consequence, she is forced to reflect on the issues she has long kept buried. What I found particularly commendable was Naylor’s use of form to paint a nuanced picture of her protagonist’s struggles: flitting between three scenes meant we were constantly moving back and forth in time, thus leaving the audience to piece together her story.

We witness Maggie’s lecture, her therapy session, and finally how she is at the mercy of her ex-girlfriend’s answer machine. The use of voice recordings for the other characters meant this play defied the typical one-woman format. This level of drama can be difficult to achieve with only one onstage character, but Naylor and actor Karen Hill pulled this off artfully, and Maggie’s onstage isolation served to mirror that which she feels in her life. It was fascinating discovering what this unreliable protagonist keeps hidden and how her cynicism is gradually transformed.

Despite the dark subject matter, Naylor’s writing delivered many quirky comedic moments. I particularly enjoyed Maggie’s blunt sense of humour and her self-assured presence with her  therapist, in juxtaposition with the underlying fear that surfaces in front of the young women. There were wonderful moments when Maggie gets so impassioned about her opinions on space it’s as if she forgets where she is, which felt incredibly human. Her near obsession with her profession was such a driving force, both captivating and thoroughly believable.

All of this was brilliantly captured in Hill’s acting; she added fervour and emotional depth to this conflicted character. She was undeniably relatable and multifaceted: one moment I loved her, the next I hated her, which was compelling. The confrontation of her bipolar disorder was resonant with our times, and reflected the repressed attitude many still feel towards mental health; Maggie’s deeply personal stories of how this has hindered her in the stiff upper-lip world of science were touching.This was beautifully echoed in the use of film projection, showing a montage of space missions.

This was a play about failures and successes, and what it means to inspire a new generation. As someone with little interested in science, ‘Lights! Planets! People!’, inspired me to think about our place within the universe, especially in relation climate change. The standing ovation at the end was well earned, and it definitely struck an emotional chord with the audience. If you missed the Norwich performance, there are still opportunities to see this captivating show, which is on tour for the rest of the year.

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June 2022
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