Rocket Man – Paul Gilchrist, Subtlenuance and the enormity of our stories. (Theatre Review)

The song Rocket Man made famous by Elton John is based on a Ray Bradbury short story called The Rocket Man.  While the song deals with the idea that traveling into space and back is similar to being a traveling salesman, Bradbury’s story deals with the complexity of forming a relationship with a person who has a dangerous job that almost completely defines them. The song reduces the glamorous to the mundane and the story speaks of the way our work can impact upon our relationships.

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In a clever compact hour, Paul Gilchrist will use both these concepts to form a meta narrative addressing some of the contemporary problems associated with theatre, the Australian theater, and even more specifically, the Sydney theatre experience. At the same time, he uses the ego and grandstanding of art (in this case theatre but one can read all art) to draw attention to the world going on around the self-referential (self-reverential) arts scene in Sydney Australia.

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In his play, Paul Gilchrist’s ‘Rocket Man’ refers to a lie.  Or rather a story not based in fact. The lie is a story Neil (played by an exquisitely handsome Daniel Hunter) uses against women who tell him they are actors. Women he is dangerously and repeatedly attracted to. It’s his story that both hides his shady identity and slices a white-hot blade through the fragile strings that hold the actor in place. Neil has a peculiar and seething hatred for actors – or is it the act itself? As the play extends through its time, it becomes apparent that Neil is a voice, or a mouthpiece.  A dangerous cry against art, that is all the more powerful for its knowledge of theater, its constructs, its boundaries, and its elitist separation from the common man. He uses the very bones of the theater to tear it to pieces. He is the mammoth call amid the everyday that takes the piss out of public funding and questions the value of crying out into an empty room.

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Between his rock and his ‘hard place’ is Veronica (another very beautiful Sylvia Keays) and the artistic female that finds she had no idea what she went to bed with but the cold hard light of day is revealing a different truth to the one she momentarily fell for. She knew her ‘Rocket Man’ was no rocket man, but chose to bed the lie none the less and this is her suffering. If Neil is a mouthpiece for a very contemporary Australian conversation, she is the universal, the eternal, the reminder the omnipresent. She is Chekhov, the Greek Tragedy, Shakespeare, Beckett and the great hope every artists suckered into the dream of theater hopes for.

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In a wily, witty back and forth Neil will ask the hardest questions of Veronica, cutting to the very heart of the young, white, child of the bourgeoisie, artistic dream. What is acting for?  What do we gain?  Does anyone even see it? Should funding for the arts be channeled elsewhere?  How exactly is our society enriched by small-scale productions that only other actors will ever see? These are the questions that can be asked of all the arts – musicians and their limited edition discs, writers and their first novels.  This is not a lament for the struggling artist as if a claim on some sort of nobility will ease the pain. This is a viscous assault that brings the damp dark questions that lurk at the back of every artists psyche to the fore.  Neil might be cruel, but he is only asking Veronica what she is too afraid to ask of herself. Gilchrist uses this banter to insert some of the most searing questions around theater – particularly the contemporary Sydney Theater scene – and the result is a meta-theatrical whirlwind of intricately spliced viciousness.

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If Neil and Veronica are our overly lauded Rocket Men, then Claudia and Justin are the spirit of the message of the song and the short story. Almost despite the blustering of Neil and the defensive slipperiness of Veronica, Claudia and Justin exist, in the here and the now, the everyday, the everyman. Claudia and Justin are equally as driven by their stories. Claudia is a nurse in emergency and feels perpetually torn between the lack of dignity associated with telling the stories surrounding her night at work, and the necessity of warning people by sharing the tragedies of others. And then there is Justin, who hears a story about a friend, chooses not to tell it, and then has to live with the consequences of keeping important information to himself.

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The place where the real “theme” of Rocket Man comes in is between Claudia and Justin, if one wants to go by the song and the short story. How does the story of one’s job, one’s life, one’s being, affect the relationship with the other? Where Veronica and Neil are our theatrical front men, it is the quiet daily conflict of the adorably sexy Justin’s attempts to understand and connect with his dedicated girlfriend Claudia who is less the woman he knows and loves each time she returns from her intensely difficult job. Claudia (A charming and warm Alyssan Russell) and her cries are largely ignored by the loud, boisterous couple arguing over the merits of theater. She just wants to sleep.  She wants to sleep away the pain and the suffering she witnessed and the fears and the horrors that come with responsibility. Gilchrist inverts Elton John’s song by elevating a nurse to the status of astronaut.  He replaces Bradbury’s stay at home family with Justin (a delicious Stephen Wilkinson) a man watching his partner being crushed by the enormity of the terrain she has to cross, all the while feeling incapable of making any kind of difference. Between Claudia and Justin, stories are real, not invented to seduce a woman or acted in front of an audience. They are not tools of manipulation they are a means of survival.

The bar at the gorgeous Tap Gallery.

The bar at the gorgeous Tap Gallery.

Given the breadth and depth of Rocket Man, it is incredible that it’s only a little over an hour long. Paul Gilchrist successfully and oh so skillfully waves his audience around so many seemingly conflicting subjects with the alacrity and verve of a ballroom dancer, making the most skilled verbiage seem so simple.  It’s an enormously clever play with plenty for the “in-the-know” theatre crowd to chew over as well as tons for the “never-go-don’t-know” crowd to get their teeth into. It’s a fantastic night of theatre. Grab your tickets here.

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