Till the Stars Come Down

Before digital TV made it a thing, “watching on catch-up” used to mean spending your Sunday afternoon in front of the EastEnders omnibus. One big fat two-hour block of soapy goodness beamed right into your living room, delivering every shock, slap, screech, and shag-filled moment of drama like little rabbit punches, their impact disappearing the moment they landed.

By trying too hard to do too much, I’m afraid it misses far too often

Observing such high levels of soap intensity condensed in this way highlighted the fantastical camp of a world where so much happened to so few, so quickly.

Watching Till The Stars Come Down, now at the National Theatre’s Dorfman, is a similar experience. Set around the events of a family wedding, it throws out duff duff moments like confetti. And like confetti, they blow away as soon as they land.

I’m not saying theatre always needs to have some big purpose. I’m a big fan of fun for fun’s sake. But writer Beth Steel seems to want to make a point in Till The Stars Come Down. She seems to want to make many. Far far too many.

So let’s try and get to the key theme here.

It may be the location.

As with many of Steel’s previous plays, Till The Stars Come Down is set in the East Midlands: an old mining town, forever marked by its history, and subsequent poverty. In the programme, a timeline shows key years in the history of British coalmining. It also has an essay subtitled “How Society Treats its Deindustrialised Towns.”

Ok, we think, fair mileage. It worked for Billy Elliot. And the BBC’s Sherwood. The coal miners’ passions run high. Memories haven’t faded. Grudges still exist. It’s rich territory.

The play doesn’t follow through. Occasionally a character says ‘sen’ instead of self. We’re told two brothers haven’t spoken since the strikes. We anticipate an eruption of long-held grudges.

We wait for a long time. The men share the same table without so much as a menacing glance between them. After about an hour, one attempts an apology. They briefly brawl. Subject closed.

It’s not location then.

Perhaps it’s about sisterhood.

Central to the drama is the reunion of the three sisters; painted clearly as Harridan, Harlot, and…Her.

There’s Hazel (Lucy Black). In a dead-end job, a dead marriage and with two kids who are dead behind the eyes, she is one of life’s “bitter but blameless.”

Then there’s Maggie, given make-up, a tight red dress, and a passing comment to multiple marriages to define her as the “tart with a heart”. Lisa McGrillis does a fair job of carving three-dimensions out of a character stuck with lines like “I’m not a bad mother, I’m just having a bad moment.” Lines like these are common. They appear from, and go, nowhere.

Finally, there’s bride Sylvia, who Sinead Matthews plays as either dim, spiritual, or screechy as demanded by the inconsistent script. Marriage plans have been fast-tracked, possibly to escape the burden of caring for her (fully able) father, since the mother died (six months ago).

The sisters alternate lines like “I’ve missed this,” or “We always laugh when we’re together” or “Remember how happy that time was.” This is soap, so we take these as the ominous portents they are.

It’s clear that Maggie only left a few months ago. She calls every week. Hazel and Sylvia still live in the same town and see each other every day. The basis of this dramatic reunion is rather shaky.

Maybe the point is about racism.

The groom, Marek, is Polish and played by Marc Wootton, who you may have seen in the Nativity films. I am told that Wootton is himself "of Polish heritage and has lived experience of growing up in a mixed household in the UK". This doesn't seem to have benefited the accent he adopts, which would sound uncomfortable even in an ITV sitcom c 1981. 

Few of the family have met the groom before the wedding. One says they have an "odd feeling" about him. We aren’t given the reason for either of these points.

His groom’s speech thanks the guests, then segues into how he arrived in the UK with no money, but now runs his own (non-specific) business. His anecdotes are about being unafraid to work hard doing the shitty jobs Brits refuse to do. Standard wedding speech fodder.

A child pipes up that one of her schoolmates was called a “Fuckin’ Pole”. She is told to be quiet.

Later Marek gets angry with his new bride for not supporting him against her family’s blatant racism. We’ve seen one slightly bigoted remark being made so far. The argument feels a bit of an overreaction.

But the fight ends quickly as bride and groom decide to fuck in the back area of the wedding disco instead. A sister interrupts them mid-act. Events move on.

As if to stress this unseen inherent racism, it is used as grounds for an over-the-top retaliation to an unfounded allegation. Marek ends up in hospital. He is in a bad way. We know this when Sylvia appears from his bedside, her wedding dress looking like it was borrowed from the set of Carrie.

That’s racism dealt with.

Perhaps I’m looking too literally.

Maybe the meaning is more spiritual.

The staging is in-the-round, with the audience occasionally referred to as the other wedding guests. Like in panto.

Between scenes, a large glitter ball rises and falls at its centre. Characters move towards it. They stare. They point. A child flies a toy space shuttle in its path.

The space theme continues to pop up. One child wants to be an astronaut. She thinks aliens will run the world and eat all the fossils.

Bride Sylvia has several moments of mysticism. One of her “remember when“s is about watching a TV programme, where the character paused time by pressing her fingers together. Then Sylvia presses her fingers together. And time stops. Then starts again.

This happens twice. It doesn’t have any impact on anything.

But space and time is all a bit Doctor Who, no?.

These are just my guesses. But you could play the game yourself, the possibilities are almost endless. Clear alternatives include old age, loneliness, adultery, regret, unemployment…off the top of my head. Including all themes here would give them more thought than the play does.

The whole thing is a mess.

Though mostly an enjoyable, very funny mess. The script is packed with jokes: the kind that seem to have been written to be punchlines, rather than dialogue. It’s possible many have been lifted from a metaphor-heavy stand-up routine.

Most of these jokes are delivered by the play’s own stand-up act: the larger-than-life, slightly potty-mouthed, glam granny, ‘Aunty’ Carol. Constantly popping up to deliver a punchline and steal the scene, Lorraine Ashbourne handles the role with ease. As you might expect, given we have seen her play this role multiple times before.

The high gag count makes Till The Stars Come Down a very pleasant way to pass the time. It’s lightweight and throwaway. Dramas arrive and leave as though passing through on a conveyer belt, too flippant to be worthy of thought.

As a bit of onstage soap, with added jokes, Till The Stars Come Down is fine. Its catch-all approach makes it a perfect choice for amateur theatre companies across the country.

But I sense the intention was to be deeper than that. Some themes demand more weight than the play’s construct allows and end up feeling half-arsed. It would be much better without them. By trying too hard to do too much, I’m afraid it misses far too often.

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Reviews by Simon Ximenez

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The Blurb

Over the course of a hot summer’s day, a family gathers to welcome a newcomer into their midst. But as the vodka flows and dances are shared, passions boil over and the limits of love are tested. What happens when the happiest day of your life opens the door to a new, frightening and uncertain future?

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