REVIEW: Bright Star (Plumb Productions)

Review by Camilla Walker

[Star is Born Again]

Although set forty-four years ago in Dallas, Texas, Bright Star strikes a still very relevant chord in its handling of misogyny in the workplace, the conflicts between careers and family, and the challenges of a pursuit of excellence.

Written by Stuart Hoar, the play follows a chapter in the life of Beatrice and Brian Tinsley, New Zealand scientists both pursuing academic careers at the University of Dallas. While it’s Brian (played brilliantly by Matt Baker) who is the breadwinner, it becomes clear that it’s Beatrice (a stellar performance from Chelsea McEwan Millar) who is the visionary. And a visionary Beatrice Tinsley apparently was – this feistily portrayed female kiwi scientist revolutionised cosmology with her theoretical work, though she is little known today.

The sexism Beatrice faces from head of the department, Professor Furstmere (Bruce Phillips), and society in general, creates dramatic tension in the play on two levels: firstly in that it frustrates Beatrice’s progress in fulfilling her desire to join the staff of Dallas University in a newly formed astronomy department, and secondly in that her rejection by Furstmere for such an opportunity puts huge pressure on her marriage. Themes of promise and compromise are eloquently addressed as the couple learn what they can and can’t do for each other, with thought-provoking and morally polarising consequences.

Chelsea McEwan Millar plays Beatrice with real panache, her intelligent and agile performance ensuring that despite the character’s excessively abrasive nature – in fact, perhaps even because of it – she remains entirely engaging. Gendered expectations arise throughout the play; ideas that a woman’s place is to be found childrearing and in domesticity abound, and the men in the play all in their own ways voice the idea that the sanctity of marriage and motherhood requires lifelong sacrifice. For Beatrice, though, so do science and the pursuit of knowledge, and difficult choices must be made.

Lisa Chappell plays a billowing Andrea, Beatrice’s best friend, with class and fluidity, though it quickly becomes clear they have little in common – Andrea consigning herself to a life Beatrice perceives as unimaginable for it not being free. It’s unclear how or why they became friends in the first place, and though the juxtaposition in their natures and idiosyncrasies is entertaining, thanks to the actors’ skill, it feels like a slightly contrived situation designed to foreground Beatrice’s unconventional attitude towards home life rather than an organic friendship. The whole cast do a fantastic job in bringing their characters to life – Bruce Phillips as a bigoted and misogynistic Furstmere, David Aston as Beatrice’s confused vicar father, Edward, and Matt Baker as a loving husband struggling with the impact of his wife’s ambitions on his own concept of success and selfhood, as well as what they mean for the family. All function as foils to Beatrice’s single-mindedness and hunger for scientific success and independence.

While the play deals thought-provokingly with extremely ambitious cosmological theories and ideas surrounding the very nature of the creation and death of the universe, there are some ‘set pieces’ that come across very much as such, and therefore detract a little from some of the natural musicality belonging to the character-led scenes of conflict. Transitions between day to day life and scientific content feel a little jarring – having cosmological projections onto the backdrop’s scenery while the characters face the audience as though they were looking at the projections behind them feels unnecessarily stagey. The ideas themselves are fascinating and deserve to be heard, as does Beatrice’s story, but their delivery ends up feeling too self-consciously theatrical at times.

Overall, however, Bright Star has been well-realised by director Paul Gittins and features stunning performances. This is a gripping, fast-paced and deeply thought-provoking show.

Bright Star is presented by Plumb Productions and Auckland Live and plays at the Herald Theatre until 16 September. 

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