We are standing in what, long ago, was the Principality Stadium (and before it the Millennium Stadium). Now it is the Monolith National Crisis Centre where we lucky chosen few wait to blast off, leaving our dying planet behind us and heading to Anomaly 1, a mysterious planet that has appeared in the sky above. This is Mission Control – collaboration between the National Theatre of Wales and Hijinx Theatre, a company who work with learning disabled and autistic actors. They and over 80 performers have taken over the stadium to transport us to 2029, to a world dominated by a single corporation – Monolith – whose technologies range from a meal replacement pill that has finally made Jamie Oliver give up to go and live in the woods, to the almost omnipresent Honey – an AI created to learn from and protect humanity.
Much of this information is displayed on a large celebratory timeline displayed at the entrance of the stadium, as part of this show’s well-integrated and fun world building. From posters and TV ads to its own brand of spirituality/motivational speaking jargon, there are plenty of things which show the thought and wit that has been put into creating the world of Mission Control. And when the dialogue sticks to this wry humour it is engaging and fizzy. A great example is the trio of characters from the highest echelons of Monolith, with Adam Redmore’s familiarly named business bro Conga Busk, his oft-misnamed assistant Claire (Rhiannon Oliver), and brains behind the throne Dr Matthew Matthews (Dan Sayer) soundly sending up familiar archetypes.
But as soon as the dialogue gets anywhere near sincerity or plot it becomes rather less enjoyable. Sometimes plot points which have already been heavily telegraphed are explained just before the scene they actually happen in, while at other times the logic of what is going on is fuzzy and unclear. The well-worn tropes of the story (the corporate smiles hiding nefarious plots, resistance movements humming Bob Dylan tunes and robot saviours turning to ominous dictators) would still be enjoyable if delivered with a smoother script, but as it is they are often delivered in writing that feels clunky and dull. And far from masking it, the promenade form emphasises this lack of excitement.
Logistics are an all important but often a hidden aspect of theatre, and in promenade shows they step to the forefront. Here, they turn a show that already had its shortcomings into something of an ordeal. There are frequent periods of waiting – the longest at the beginning and end, as we wait for our group to be called and then wait for all the other groups to catch up, but also in rooms and long corridors, our guides making desperate small talk about what people have come to the stadium for before, which half the group can’t even hear. And as these pauses elongate the show in a way that risks not only boredom, but an even more dangerous outcome – the audience starting conversations with their friends that become more interesting than the show itself.
It’s a shame because there are some elements of the performance that really shine – The Serviettes (Ffion Gwyther and Francois Pandolfo as Monolith workers who look after the AI servers) bring a real warmth and energy to proceedings, the ‘local community performance’ presided over by Seiriol Davies is a believable mess of joy and egos, and Ceri James’ lighting and Mike Beer’s sound create a couple of really immersive moments in the corridors of the stadium. But the slow and erratic pace means that it feels like a missed opportunity, in such a promising space with such a colossal cast of performers, to create something really great.
Mission Control played at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff from 22-24 November. More info here.