Close to the end of Bridgette Burton’s charming new work, Myra in Space, the first woman to go to space quotes the sci-fi horror Aliens. The woman is Valentina Tereshkova, a Russian cosmonaut who still holds the record for most orbits around the earth (48). The line is ‘in space no one can hear you scream’.
It’s a tongue-in-cheek reference, like many peppered throughout the 70-minute show from Baggage Productions. It’s also quietly affecting. It comes as Tereshkova (played with wit and verve by Rama Nicholas) is instructing a new aspiring astronaut, Myra (Kelly Nash) on the ways of space.
Under her tutelage, Myra hopes to get to Mars. But Myra’s sudden celestial aspiration has been spurred, not by a Soviet-Russian agenda, but after a life-time being relegated to the roles of dutiful wife and loving mother. No one might be able to hear you scream in space, but, for Myra, no one has heard her screams on earth for years.
Her kids, Vallie (Annie Lumsden) and Phillip (Nicholas Jaquinot), have grown up. Her husband, Bruce (Greg Parker), is busy excelling at a career he was only able to have because Myra stayed at home years ago.
Like many women of her generation, she feels the keen sting of waisted aspiration; a lifetime having to keep her feet on the ground for the sake of others. But she’s throwing her head back into the clouds (and beyond) at last.
With eye-catching design, seamless direction and a script that manages to pack heart and humour in equal measure, this production reaches similarly impressive heights. Despite a meandering end, its joyful charm singles it out as a must-see.
We’re in the hull of a space-ship. Set designer Silvia Shao has converted the basement-like fortyfivedownstairs into a deconstructed intergalactic voyage. We’re in the round, with intricate structures of white piping resembling the hull of a space ship surrounding us on all sides.
Meanwhile, lighting design by Richard Vabre casts stars on the ceiling in the form of tiny speckles of warm yellow light and Nat Grant floods each scene transition with the rumbling roar of a jet engine. That characters would question Myra’s plans to go to Mars seem suddenly asinine. Can’t you see? She’s already there.
Burton’s dialogue is quick-witted and her characters richly rendered. The feminist politic at the show’s centre is handled with nuance and heart (with one notable exception in the surprisingly didactic writing of Myra’s mother).
There is a lived-in quality to every relationship, a shared language between this family in crisis that is aided by incredible performances across the board. Lumsden is magnetic as Vallie, an ambitious and opinionated radio host.
Jaquinot is loveable and endearing as ‘Pip’ (Phillip). His scenes with Myra are among the show’s most deeply affecting. And that Parker manages to remain likeable despite his character’s faults – and his underwritten relationship to Myra – is impressive.
But the script makes it clear from the outset: we’re in Myra’s head. Nash is the star of the show, playing Myra with a warmth and charm that helps us feel the tragedy of Myra’s circumstances without simply pitying her. She steers the show beautifully, swinging from witticism to emotionally-wrought screaming match with aplomb.
Part of the show’s appeal is its surprising and original settings. Scenes move fluidly from Tuesday night barbecues and graduation ceremonies to behind the scenes at a radio station with an enigmatic speed that is handled expertly by director Alice Bishop.
Bishop’s direction is well-attuned to the complex transitions and tonal shifts required of the script as well as the potential of the fortyfivedownstairs space. Blocking is smooth, almost dance like in the way it flows seamlessly between these often overlapping settings and crowded scenes.
That the show’s ending feels disappointing is in part due to the effectiveness of the diverse settings and momentum achieved by its opening half. Where it was initially impossible to predict where Burton would take us next, the final few scenes return to similar settings with less and less dramatic payoff.
It feels as if after such an ambitious start, Burton wasn’t sure how to conclude Myra’s narrative in a way that would feel satisfying. The result is an ending that feels unfinished. We return to a surreal style favoured by the first few scenes, but where this initial style added an appealing air of mystery to the show, it only frustrates our need for clarity by the end.
Despite a disappointing conclusion, Myra in Space should not be missed. Charming and deeply felt, it reaches for the stars with an ambitious production and stellar performances. Even if it ultimately fails to reach the heights it seemed to promise, it still manages to land somewhere beautiful among the clouds.
Myra in Space
fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Performance: Sunday 10 September 2023
Season continues to 17 September 2023
For more information, visit: www.baggageproductions.com for details.
Image: Kelly Nash in Myra in Space – photo by Jody Jane Stitt
Review: Guy Webster