Caragh Medlicott attends the latest production from Hijinx and National Theatre Wales, Mission Control.
The world of Mission Control commences before you’ve even reached the box office. On the river side of the Principality Stadium, a group of protesters chant and plead with the audience queuing to get their tickets – ‘don’t go’ – they say – ‘stay here with us’. Described as a ‘guided promenade performance’ it’s clear this is not a typical play, and neither should it be approached as such. It’s been over a year since an open letter signed by playwrights across Wales asked for more from the heavily subsidised National Theatre Wales. Now, NTW teams up with local Cardiff theatre company Hijinx, to debut homegrown talent in an ambitious production featuring a cast of over 80 neurodiverse and learning disabled performers.
Upon entrance to the stadium the incoming crowd is quickly divided into colour-coded groups. As the room fills up, staff dressed in flight attendant uniforms mill around asking groups how they feel about the upcoming trip. ‘Nervous’ I tell one attendant – ‘that’s only natural when going to a new planet’ she reassures me. Context is divulged via a number of TV screens. The year is 2029 and the perished world is falling to ruin. The global corporation Monolith has compromised democracy and enveloped the earth in a dystopian haze. At the head of the corporation is Conga Busk (Adam Redmore), the charismatic CEO who has risen from his roots in Carmarthen to a business giant with a finger in every pie. We, the audience, are part of the 1% of the population specially selected to take off and start afresh on an earth-point-2, a planet named Anomaly 1.
The TVs continue to play comic, yet unnerving, adverts promoting synthesised food capsules (video production, Dan McGowan). A blue-uniformed flight attendant is dragged from the room by black-clad security. The remaining staff reassure us there’s nothing to worry about. The room is buzzing, audience members exchange rue smiles; there’s a distinct and delicious sense that we’re all in on one massive game of make believe. In a way, we are. As the performance kicks into full swing, Conga Busk swans in – champagne glass in hand – to make the pre-lift-off speech and introduce us all to Honey (Tesni Kujore), the AI assistant apparently ubiquitous in 2029.
The tour kicks off, with each group called up at two-minute intervals and guided by a personal flight attendant. With the herding and shuffling into rooms there’s an echo of being on a school trip. Unavoidably there’s some dead time spent waiting and moving between spaces, but for the most part the audience resists spending too much time phone scrolling. The immersive set (Buddug James Jones) sprawls the length of the corridors, changing rooms, car park and – eventually – the stadium’s stands and pitch. Lights flash in time with emergency announcements (light designer, Ceri James, can also be credited with the first eerie and effective use of pink lighting that I’ve ever seen). There’s a steam punkiness about the whole look, and also an authentic nerdiness, like it’s been designed by an ultra-fan at Comic Con. Inspiration seems to encompass everything from 2001: Space Odyssey to the tin-foil 60s aesthetics of the moon landing.
Pillar characters such as the zany-cum-grumpy scientist Dr Matthews can be caricature like, but there’s hardly room (or time) for subtlety in a production where the audience is always on the move. Despite the dark subject area, there’s a real and quick-witted comedy running throughout this production; maybe it’s propelled by the very real sense of fun, but the jokes are pitched right and consistently return laughter.
For the first few pit stops, the narrative can feel disconnected. While the fragments of story are perfectly digestible as standalone mini-performances, it’s not always obvious how one part connects to the other (it is the overarching premise of the trip to Anomaly 1 which keeps the plot pushing forward). This, perhaps, is a symptom of the fairly large groups the audience moves around in. It can be hard to tell when key statements might have been missed, yet, the immersive nature of Mission Control requires that the cast is always moving. Certainly, actors patiently waiting until the room’s filled out would have ruined the overall effect. Still, for such a pioneering production, it’s far from a deal-breaker.
Moving into the latter half of the performance audience participation gently inclines. Cast members hand out books with folded hand-written letters inside, actors ask questions of the audience – all of this is a slow, but persistent warm up for what’s to be encountered in the car park. A rebel alliance – (oh yes, Star Wars inspiration is in there, too) – has taken over the tarmac. The space is filled with doodled-on vans, bread-making stations, face-painted mimes and even groups of people wiggling their hips while shouting “hula, hula!”. To elicit such animation from the Welsh public on a wet Sunday afternoon is a serious accomplishment, and it’s one for which the energetic cast must be highly commended. With the groups dispersed, some unlucky cast members are given the rather stressful-looking job of coordinating the (suddenly) all-singing, all-dancing audience.
The plays penultimate stop-off features an unexpected musical and contagious giggles. After all the excitement, humanoid AI Honey reenters the scene. The plot unwinds faster than a yo-yo as we’re suddenly rushed towards the finale. Shuffled into our seats, the mostly empty stadium already seems slightly unsettling – but with silent and immovable figures in space suits, the effect is amplified. The malfunction of human-programmed Honey mirrors the plot of both 2001 and a hundred or more sci-fi stories since. Its final resolution is simple, albeit predictable. With so many threads of narrative hanging loose, all in all, a clear conclusion is probably for the best.
Mission Control offers much to be admired, and even more to be enjoyed. As far as dramatic subtleties go, this may not be the pinnacle, still the production has a big heart and poignant message. It resounds clear and urgent: we have just one planet, we need to look after it. Mission Control also marks yet another promising step from NTW; an ambitious, interesting project with an inclusive and talented cast. People-herding and jumpy plot aside, Mission Control certainly leaves a smile on the face.