James Stuart – or Stuart James – is passed out at his desk as the audience file into the space. He’s been working long days and long nights as an overworked and sallow state servant. The reason why it’s hard to remember his name is that his existence is, well, quite forgettable. This is a core gag at the heart of Strickland Production’s Apollo: Take 111, which has a really attractive premise but does not deliver on its mission statement.
Probably the most visionary and flexible use of cardboard boxes in contemporary British theatre
James Stuart – or Stuart James – has been told by his boss to join the effort of landing men on the moon. He is an important but forgettable cog, in an important history-making machine. Realising his task is impossible, he instead attempts to film a moon landing in his basement – anything to keep the Russians on the back foot and strengthen the USA.
This is a farce on a shoestring, which is fine. It’s a joy to see shameless rapid-fire ridiculousness at the Fringe in a black box space and it must be said that Apollo: Take 111 has probably the most visionary and flexible use of cardboard boxes in contemporary British theatre – which may not be the accolade Strickland Productions were looking for, but such is life at the Fringe.
Stuart James’ task is complicated and this is where Apollo: Take 111 stumbles – nothing entirely makes sense and there is a lack of commitment within the show itself. It is not fully absurd, it is not entirely surreal, and it’s plot often feels lazy. It feels like the writing is not committed to the actual premise, and so the storytelling is really very jagged. Two masquerading Russians appear, for the ‘Russians wear furry hats and steal state secrets’ gag, and are then forgotten by the play. When Stuart James’ relationship falls to pieces, there’s no emotional or considerable force that was worth investing in the couple anyway. There is no replacement for a script that can deliver its key plot points, and unfortunately Apollo: Take 111 struggles to do this. Sometimes a funny moment is undermined due to the length of an actor’s monologue; or the same joke is rephrased over several minutes. It all feels extraneous, which is frustrating when character motivations see almost no stage time.
The pace picks up when Stanley Kosminsky, a savage film director, turns up to film the moon landing in James’ basement. Things get funnier and the performances here show commitment to the silliness, as well as delivering that silliness with panache and choreography.
But the writing struggles. Even a farce needs a plot, and farce can be one of the hardest styles of comedy to successfully pull off: it requires meticulous attention to pacing, character motivations, and choreography. Like Strickland Production’s lovely cardboard boxes, which were at times a desk or a film camera, the plot of Apollo: Take 111 felt like a cardboard cut-out of an idea rather than an actual narrative.
Apollo: Take 111 acknowledges the anniversary of the moon landing, but feels starved of oxygen from the outset.