The Starry Messenger
Thursday 16th May 2019
We’ve been waiting a long time to see Matthew Broderick on the London stage. For a while, there was talk that he might come over with the Broadway production of the musical version of ‘The Producers’ back in the early noughties, but nearly twenty years later, we were very pleased to find that we would finally see Broderick in the West End, in a play by Kenneth Lonergan, who we have admired for a long time, ever since seeing his plays ‘This is Our Youth’ and ‘Lobby Hero’, and his subsequent films. This play, The Starry Messenger is a revival from ten years ago, and more than deserving of a trip over the pond.
The play, like a lot of Lonergan’s work, is not exactly plot-driven. It revolves around an astronomer, Mark Williams, who feels he has probably ‘gone as far as he can’ in academia, and is now getting by on various lecturing jobs, including a beginner’s class for adults at the planetarium, while he watches his former students overtake him on the career ladder.
It is hard to describe the plot, as Broderick hilariously found when he appeared on the Graham Norton show and was amiably berated by the host for not selling his appearance in the West End sufficiently well. What we can say is that Lonergan is a master chronicler of the human condition. Astronomy is the perfect starting point, and we have never thought of the ironic counterpoint between the vastness of the universe and the challenges of comprehension it presents to atheists and believers alike, and the banality of the work which has led us to better understand it. So, on the one hand, Williams is criticised by his pupils for being insufficiently inspiring, and yet he is still so enthralled by astronomy that at the age of 52 he is prepared to take a basic data entry job on a research project just to be part of something bigger.
Matthew Broderick has the great challenge of portraying this ‘boring’ character without being boring. He pulls off this miracle by being disarmingly authentic. His delivery is confident with a small ‘c’ – he is unhurried, he does not feel the need to ‘dramatise’ the material, he does not attempt to ‘engage’ his audience. The result is an inner stillness that lets us in to this small, uncertain, world. We are also treated to some top-quality passive-aggression from a master of the art. Perhaps our favourite moment is the interminably long gap between being ruthlessly critiqued by one of his students and the expletive-filled reposte which follows long after he has left the room. This is a performance well worth waiting for and an object lesson in how to allow the writing do its work.
Elizabeth McGovern pitches her performance as Williams’ long-suffering wife perfectly. At first she appears to be a lightweight foil for Broderick’s brooding persona, airy, optimistic and apparently oblivious, but by the end we learn what supreme effort goes into maintaining her cheerful demeanour as she tries to manage a household with a man who won’t make decisions with her, but blames her for everything. Never has the repetition of the phrase ‘Can we talk about Christmas?’ at various stages in the evening taken on such portent as it does here.
Rosalind Eleazar portrays Angela, a young woman who decides to add further complications to her already busy life by having an affair with Williams. She brings a freshness and warmth to the play as a character who wears her heart on her sleeve, and the comic chemistry with Broderick is a pleasure to watch.
Sam Yates has gathered an impressive cast for all his supporting characters. We have the legendary Jim Norton, known for playing Father Ted’s nemesis Bishop Brennan in the channel 4 series, coming through a brush with death at the hospital where Angela works, to give her the spiritual advice she needs; we have Jenny Galloway, the original Mrs Thernadier from Les Miserables, as a student who is desperate to learn about astronomy (we never quite find out why) but just doesn’t get it, as she loudly proclaims at every opportunity. Sid Sagar entertains as the student (there’s always one, isn’t there?) who feels the need to provide unsolicited feedback, a task he is determined to complete in the face of overwhelming indifference.
We’ve got a feeling the running time may shorten a little during previews, but this is a meaty play, unapologetic about its 3 hour plus running time, and full of insight and humour – it doesn’t feel a minute too long.