What compels us to explore? It seems, at first, as though Voyager – its title a reference to the space probe launched by NASA in 1977, now the man-made object that has travelled furthest away from Earth – might attempt to answer this question. It follows Carrie, an English teacher who applies for a programme that is sending a teacher to Mars. It could be the opportunity of a lifetime. But she might not be able to come back.
Recently, space travel has provided a surprisingly rich theatrical seam. Alistair McDowall’s dizzying X has just finished its run at the Royal Court, while in 2014 Curious Directive addressed the possibility of a manned mission to Mars in the wide-ranging, ambitious Pioneer. The bar has been set high. Voyager, despite its promising premise, falls considerably short. It tantalisingly suggests a glimpse into the psychology of those who reach for the stars, but ultimately its story and its message are frustratingly earth-bound.
Carrie hears about the chance to go to Mars soon after losing her mother to Alzheimer’s. At first, she barely gives it a second thought, but then she discovers a tape left for her by her mother. Space exploration, as it turns out, might just be in her genes. She hears with excitement how her parents met while compiling the Golden Record – an audio-visual document of human life for any extra-terrestrials the probe might encounter – for the Voyager mission in the 1970s. A bit of her mother is still out there somewhere, propelled further and further away from Earth, and suddenly she feels the same pull.
The rest of the show is then a tug of war between Carrie’s impulse to leave and the commitments, especially to her partner Ben, which urge her to stay. This could offer a fascinating insight into the motivations of those who leave behind everything they know and love to explore new worlds, but it never digs quite that deep. We see Carrie’s anguished uncertainty, but not the mechanics behind her furiously whirring mental cogs. The Golden Record also feels like a missed opportunity, dropped into the narrative without being fully explored. And in the close yet shallow focus on Carrie, Idle Motion lose sight of the bigger picture of the complex desires and contradictions behind human space exploration. There’s not enough science for it to be science-driven and not enough character for it to be character-driven.
The plot, meanwhile, relies on some unlikely contrivances. The recorded voice of Carrie’s mother punctuates the story, providing timely revelations and reflections. But why wouldn’t Carrie listen to the whole tape to begin with? The stopping and starting message ends up feeling like a convenient narrative scaffold, diluting some of its emotional impact. The Mars mission likewise becomes little more than a catalyst for Carrie’s dilemma. Providing only the sketchiest of details about this NASA programme, the show leaves many questions maddeningly unanswered.
There is, though, a certain charm to Idle Motion’s storytelling that persists from earlier work. Ellen Nabarro’s versatile set, with its stylish geometric backdrop and collection of multi-purpose furniture, is smoothly and sometimes ingeniously used by the cast of five as they propel the story along. There are also some pleasing traces of the company’s physical work, though this movement is not deployed as strongly as it might be. Idle Motion do better with the small: beautifully observed little snatches of classroom conversation or tender moments of connection. Here, the vastness of space and the big ideas it invites about exploration, progress and human legacy elude the company’s delicate aesthetic.
Voyager is on until 11th June 2016. Click here for more information.