Science fiction on a shoestring? Hartlepool has you covered. Astronauts by the hundreds, the thousands, have been pulled out of orbit and towards Earth by this generally overlooked northeastern town. And in the musty, humid Pit chamber of the Vaults, you can almost smell the malaise of the forgotten backwater. Against this post-industrial backdrop, a Brexit fable plays out – but not quite the fable one might expect. Astronauts of Hartlepool is deeply ambitious and darkly funny – a twisty, turny, and revelatory look at who the ‘aliens’ in our midst truly are.
The play opens with two women, both in black jumpsuits, on opposite ends of the otherwise bare stage.
“Don’t jump!” Aidan (Sophie Steer) yells at Nadia (Rakhee Thakrar), who’s perched on what is possibly the edge of a bridge or cliff.
Nadia’s astonished. She turns. “You can see me?” she asks, slightly incredulous, a woman accustomed to being on the periphery of everyone’s vision.
Now Aidan’s a bit suspicious. “…I didn’t think you all look the same,” she tests the words in her mouth.
Oh, okay, I think, in the middle of their remarkable rapid-fire banter, this is going to be one of those direct sci-fi analogies of acceptance mapped metaphor for metaphor onto our daily lives. Nadia’s astronaut-immigrant is presumably the extra-terrestrial alien arriving on a hostile, xenophobic Earth, and Aidan interjects at this point that Hartlepool is “obviously better than where you’re from”.
Mild spoiler: it isn’t one of those sci-fi plays. Playwright Tim Foley has a glorious mass of science fiction tropes at his disposal, and he lobs each one at the audience whenever we think we’ve got the mechanics of the play figured out.
There’s a taste of the stable time loop of Groundhog Day or All You Need Is Kill in the opening scenes, as Aidan encounters ‘Nadia’ again and again. But once the rules of these occurrences are established, Foley pulls the rug out from under us and introduces his sprawling, ever-unfurling multiverse, a series of stacked alternate dimensions from which an endless stream of Nadias arrives week after week. (Did I spy a hint of that Doctor Who–River Song anachronic order of meetings?) Rakhee Thakrar is spot-on in her varied portrayals of the various Nadias, each slightly different from the next, her body language and tiny tics fleshing out each complete character. She and Sophie Steer have wonderful chemistry, their energy unflagging as they – under Siobhan Cannon-Brownlie’s excellent direction – single-handedly conjure up the lush, complex world they find themselves in with hardly any props and the minimal use of lighting and some well-timed blackouts.
So much is packed into a production of just over an hour, as we discover each character’s back story, their disenfranchisement, and the compromises and choices they’ve been compelled to make in order to leave terrible circumstances behind or to attempt to change a dying, rotting world. There are several other mind-bending twists to the plot, which allow the audience to put together the puzzle bit by bit, scene by scene, until the moments arrive, in quick succession, where the pieces click together ever so satisfyingly. The audience is worked hard to get the larger picture at play, but it’s deeply rewarding when that image comes into focus.
It’s hard to avoid the baggage of political didacticism that comes with this theatrical analysis of current affairs and the immigration crisis, but the creative team does this as deftly as they can, choosing subliminal messaging and bleak humour over slogans and feel-good advocacy. Astronauts of Hartlepool suggests that we are all aliens, that we are all astronauts – but also that the situation at hand doesn’t have easy answers and that every stubborn conviction comes with thick layers of accumulated bitterness or grief. The sins of the fathers and mothers are visited on their sons and daughters, over and over again. One terrible, misunderstood encounter can lead to decades of violence and exclusion.
Astronauts of Hartlepool is as sharply funny as it is deafeningly sad, a well-timed commentary about the times we live in – where a revolution can hinge on a tiny change, or where change can be failed by a revolution.
Produced by Hannah Tookey
Directed by Siobhán Cannon-Brownlie
Written by Tim Foley
Cast includes Sophie Steer and Rakhee Thakrar