Reviews Edinburgh Published 20 August 2014


Zoo Southside ⋄ 1st - 25th August 2014

Life on Mars.

Crystal Bennes

In the beginning was the Garden of Eden and this palindrome of a show starts and finishes with a beautiful monologue, re-framing Eve’s curiosity not as sin, but as the driving force at the heart of humanity. “Eve wanted more”, as, perhaps, so do we all.

On the surface, Curious Directive’s Pioneer, explores space travel and the astronauts who boldly go – we have the three intertwined stories of the astronaut couple who are the first to return to Mars after a disastrous first-attempt in 2025; the space-bureaucrats who helped to put them there; and a pair of Russian brothers, thousands of miles away on a seemingly-unconnected Siberian road-trip pilgrimage following in the footsteps of their genius great-grandfather.

Unlike some of this company’s previous work, their fragments-making-a-greater-whole technique has been perfected in this production. Scenes switch between the various pairs relatively rapidly, but the characters are given the space to develop and we have time to get to know them. Also, crucially, the writing is beautiful – complex, without being obtuse, clear, and best of all, funny.

At the moment, there’s a proliferation of artistic work that uses scientific concepts as vague, rather weak metaphor – the breakdown of a relationship likened to the second law of thermodynamics, for example. Not only is this slightly thoughtless on the part of the artist, but it does a disservice to the complexity of the scientific concept rather than illuminate it for a wider public.

The success of Pioneer is that, finally, their near-trademark method of storytelling, the fragments that make the greater whole, perfectly suits the ideas explored by the play. The questions aren’t just of the mechanics of space exploration and the mysteries of the cosmos, but of the mysteries and mechanics of humans themselves: why do we simultaneously laud men’s curiosity and yet treat it as our original sin; why sort of people are we who dream of other planets when we look up at the sky and yet dream of the Earth when we’re on other planets; that we strive, seek to explore, not merely for utility’s sake, but just because we want to know what’s out there.

The staging is especially well-conceived. Three large, cubed circles are rolled around set to fill various needs, serving in turns as the astronauts’ bunk, space station offices, a speeding car, an underwater submersible. Technology, too, is used to great effect, particularly the hand-held video camera which represents Jun, an advanced AI system which monitors the stats of the Mars-mission astronauts. It’s nice to see video and technology used with purpose, to further the telling of the story rather than distract from it.

What keeps us connected to our next great hope?”, one character asks at the beginning and again at the end of the play. The question refers to the connection between Earth and Mars, but also, perhaps, to our insatiable curiosity, our drive to understand our universe and ourselves, the same drive that many think is the future solution to all our present problems. Curious Directive have come of age with Pioneer; this is a beautiful, surprising production which tells a compelling story about complex subjects. A true pleasure.


Crystal Bennes is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

Pioneer Show Info

Produced by Curious Directive/NNF/ Watford Palace Theatre

Directed by Jack Lowe

Cast includes Emily Lloyd-Saini, Gabrielle Lombardo, James Hardy, Stephen Bisland, Caitlin Ince, Flora Denma




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