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Scoop Review - Apollo 13: Mission Control

Review: Apollo 13: Mission Control

Or, A Beginner's Guide To CM-109 Command Module Maintenance & Repair
By Rory MacKinnon
Apollo 13: mission control. Photo credit phillip merry
Phillip Merry

Apollo 13: Mission Control
Downstage Theatre
30 Oct – 18 Dec 2010

It's often said that the core of great theatre can be reduced to two things: an immersive world and a stark challenge to the audience. Apollo 13 then is truly great theatre.

With the show now in its third season, surely half of Wellington must have seen it - but I'll avoid any spoilers by saying it's a light-hearted but historically accurate account of the Apollo 13 mission. For those familiar with the story, the interactive experience in the control room is nothing short of Rocky Horror for nerds: row upon row of monitors, phone banks, charts and dials; flight directors striding up and down the centre aisle, clipboards in hand; impassioned arguments and inspirational rhetoric straight out of a Jerry Bruckheimer movie.

But despite its kitschy dorkiness, the show has been embraced by a surprisingly diverse audience: our night saw a nine-year-old press secretary take a call from Richard Nixon while trainee flight director Ashley Hawkins (Ashley Hawkes) grappled with a crotchety 60-something flight surgeon. And for all the bells and whistles, the real magic of the show is in the cast's razor-sharp improvisation: the dour flight director Krantz (Jason Whyte), his earnest trainee Ashley (Ashley Hawkes) and the increasingly brittle grounded astronaut Ken Mattingly (Kip Chapman) manage to stay on script while filling every free moment with demands for meterological data, splashdown sites, crew vitals and more. To improvise an entire show built on audience participation while navigating an anarchic atmosphere and bumpy plot is a marvelous achievement.

Like all good theatre, Apollo 13 mounts a direct challenge to the audience - but it uniquely does so by placing them in the action. There is a moment - I won't ruin it with details - but there is a moment which forces every single member of the audience to realise who they really are in a crisis.

Apollo 13 may not be for everyone - my partner felt frustrated that as Booster Technician #3 her attention was divided between completing her assigned tasks and keeping up with the plot - but those who relish their memories of playing spaceman as a kid will leave wanting only to start all over again. Kudos to Downstage for partnering with HACKMAN Productions on this one: with the right support, it is the kind of show - like Christmas pantomimes and Andrew Lloyd Webber - which will play for generations.


Press releases: Apollo 13 – about to blast onto the world stage - Theatre show Apollo 13 battles Supreme Court
Previous seasons: Lyndon Hood - Arts Festival Review: Apollo 13: Mission Control

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