views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The Moors Bar
16th August 2017


Publicity image for Astronaut

Photography provided by the Camden Fringe

Last Christmas, a group of activists took over an empty building owned by Irish government agency NAMA and filled it with 40 rough sleepers. Given NAMA was set up to deal with the financial crisis and a lack of funding for homeless shelters had led to people sleeping rough in extreme cold, legalities aside, there's a certain logic in what they were trying to do. The occupation did not last long and everyone was kicked out the following month. With the many problems with homelessness we have in our own city, you might not have heard of this very brief occupation of state land over in Dublin, but they clearly haunt performer Joe Wright, who has taken inspiration from them in his one-man show Astronaut. News clips from the start of this year reporting on those true events are woven into his performance to emphasise the grim reality of rough sleeping.

A deeply charismatic individual, Wright is a mesmerising storyteller with an enigmatic glint in his eyes. He saunters slowly onto the stage dressed in casual clothing, but his words dart around far quicker, taking us from the past to the present and back again. Wright pauses only to let some of the videos play and let us reflect on what we've heard, before talking once against of impossible dreams of reaching for the stars. It's a very fluid performance with an ever-changing rhythm. As his character tells us matter-of-factly that there was only ever one path for him, the lack of bitterness in that delivery makes that truth all the more shocking. Sometimes people really don't have any options open to them and that's heartbreaking.

Footage is played on old-fashioned television sets and also projected onto a tall, neat stack of white cardboard boxes. It's a simple but pleasingly thoughtful design, which is evocative of so many different ideas. The crisp, clean white lines, for example, make us think of that modern, shiny spaceship in which our protagonist wants to escape. The cardboard is an obvious link to rough sleeping, with the implication that our protagonist is far more likely to stay close to the ground, lying on discarded boxes than fly away in them. There's a lot of small detail here created by director Emily Matthews that only works due to the very intimate nature of the Moors Bar, which is one of the cosiest Camden Fringe venues.

Throughout the hour-long show, Wright's character is searching for pieces of cardboard and there are moments where we wonder if he's searching so hard for part of a metaphorical spaceship. The warm building in the newsreels, fact fans, is actually named Apollo House, so comes with some space travel connotations in its name. Another possibility is that like many homeless people, he suffers from an unnoticed mental illness or perhaps the idea of finding a space ship is a coping strategy for life on the streets. As with any good yarn, there's a lot of ambiguity in Wright's tale, allowing us to imagine all kinds of alternative endings. Sadly though, none of those endings are particularly happy.

Thought-provoking and insightful, Astronaut is beautifully crafted piece of storytelling. Wright's character may never quite grab all those stars, but he certainly deserves to.

Astronaut opened on 16th August and runs until 18th August 2017 at The Moors Bar, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Hornsey (National Rail)

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