Rocket to the Moon

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National Theatre
Until 21 June

Clifford Odets is rightly celebrated for his earlier overtly political plays Waiting for Lefty and Awake and Sing! Rocket to the Moon, which premiered in 1938, is a more innocuous creation, centring as it does on a somewhat hapless married New York dentist, his wife, her father, and the young dental assistant and aspiring dancer who excites his desire and causes him to muse on his thwarted ambitions.

Odets, a socialist, emerged as the principal writer for the Group Theatre collective in New York, who curtailed lead parts in favour of an emphasis on ensemble performance. Some of that ethos is evident in this play. This style would lead to the setting up of Method acting schools and greatly influenced such playwrights as Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller.

Unfortunately the script is marred by its clumsiness. For instance, the fact that the drama takes place on the anniversary of the dentist's wife's miscarriage is tossed into the plot in an oddly perfunctory way. The play would have been more powerful if the part this tragedy had played in slowly poisoning the couple's relationship had been properly explored.

The problem is, to a modern audience, the cliché of the professional male who can't decide between his shrewish caricature of a wife and his voluptuous and eager to please employee is one that has been much used by films and sitcoms - some good but mostly bad - so many times since, and the well-troddenness of this comedic ground makes it difficult not to conjure up those comparisons.

Nevertheless, when the dialogue sporadically hits the right balance between urban vernacular and poetic metaphor, the play trundles along pleasantly like an inferior episode of Frasier.

The backdrop of the Depression makes itself known through the virtual absence of patients visible in the corridor of the dentist's surgery and the unpaid rents of his distraught colleague, who also communicates the shadow of imminent war through his talk of "nervous times".

Less political than his earlier plays, Rocket to the Moon still conveys Odets's characteristic belief in the power of the human spirit to overcome despair and persevere in the face of hardship. The revival of this play sits well amid a timely resurgence of interest in the arts and culture of the Depression.

At performances of Waiting for Lefty the audience would sometimes join in when the actors broke through the fourth wall and began chanting, "Strike! Strike! Strike!" Odets never wrote a play that successfully combined the outspokenness of his earlier crudely agitational plays with the snappier dialogue and greater subtlety of his later work. Had he managed to do so, nowadays even a South Bank audience there to see "that Keeley Hawes off Ashes to Ashes", who plays the dental nurse, might have taken up the chant.