Samantha Chester‘s solo work The Astronaut is a standout work in The Blue Room’s Season One. It’s different in form and content from the majority of the other shows we’ve seen this year, and it is a welcome refresher this winter.
The Astronaut is a strongly visual physical theatre piece full of atmosphere and charm, created and performed by Chester and directed by Frances Barbe. The show begins with Chester resting blankly in an armchair in front of a television in the corner of the stage space. She’s lit by a floor lamp and we can see a bowl of mandarins, some half-peeled, on a small table next to her. A million jigsaw puzzle pieces cover a table and the floor centre stage.
The scene (design by Isabel O’Neill) is intimate, familiar, and yet, Chester’s placid expression doesn’t reveal anything at the outset. We take clues from sound recordings of the 1969 moon landing and the weather report that emanate from the television along with its flickering light. And as Chester moves to the table overflowing with puzzle pieces, a window to her character’s inner life is opened. She shuffles through the pieces for a specific cassette tape, a relic that stores her memories and her inner monologue. She replays this tape and takes a trip down memory lane.
We spend some time with her, Gwen, in this room, watching her solitary life and its odd routines that make sense only to her; Chester uses a physical language that borrows somewhat from contemporary dance blended with very precise gestures and movements laden with meaning. There is no flick of Chester’s hand that doesn’t contain significance; it’s her physical movements that have taken precedence over the spoken word for a large portion of the show. We hear her thoughts mostly indirectly through the cassettes she plays.
As a third and fourth layer to this experience, we have the lovely lighting and visual design by Matthew Osborne and a complex musical composition by Ekrem Mulayim; they complete setting, reflect mood, and create metaphor. Without these elements Chester’s actions would be less meaningful, and we’d have a much harder time understanding her character’s solitary existence. This world simply wouldn’t exist without those elements.
Chester invited operator Timothy Green to take a bow with her in the end as it truly was a collaborative, fluid exchange between performer and operator, and well-timed cues are absolutely essential in this work. It’s wonderful to visit Gwen’s memories with her, bittersweet though they may be, because they are housed in this lovingly-crafted bubble that Chester and her team have created.
Audiences will inevitably walk away with different meanings from the show, connect with different parts of its anatomy; some will love the Elvis interludes, some will remember their own first dance, some will feel delight with her at smelling a freshly peeled mandarin. It’s a generous artwork from a group of collaborators whose synergy is clear and harmonious.
The Astronaut runs until 9 July at The Blue Room Theatre. For tickets, visit The Blue Room website here.