The Daily Telegraph

July 11, 2001, Charles Spencer

Lepage launches a glorious lunar odyssey - down at the launderette.

It is 40 years since Gagarin made his first orbit round the Earth, and already the space race and the moon landings are beginning to seem like distant history. What was it all for? What did it mean? Was it really a giant leap for mankind?

In his wonderful new one-man show, the great Canadian director and theatrical spellbinder Robert Lepage offers an exploration of both inner and outer space.

His central character is Philippe, an introverted PhD student struggling with a failed thesis about the cultural impact of space travel.

His mother has just died after suffering dreadfully from kidney disease (Lepage’s own mother died two years ago), and he has a difficult relationship with his younger, more successful brother, a vain and bossy TV weatherman. Poor Philippe potters round his tiny flat, and trudges forlornly to the local launderette, but if his feet are on the Earth, his head is in the stars.

In this marvelously designed and directed show in the Lyttelton, with an outstanding spacy score by the excellent Laurie Anderson, the humdrum is constantly transformed into the miraculous. The round glass door of a washing machine becomes, in turn, the entrance to a spacecraft, a view of the Earth from space, a clock and a goldfish bowl.

In his loneliness, Phillippe is greeted by a small puppet astronaut who leads him through the washing machine and out into the freedom of space, and though his life seems to be catalogue of lonely failure, the ending movingly hints at the possibility of reconciliation with life on this sublunary plane.

The show makes evocative use of newsreel footage of the space race - nervous monkeys being sent into orbit by the Russians, Gagarin’s epic flight and the first moon landing among them. Philippe also delivers extracts from his thesis, offering his theory that space exploration had little to do with intellectual curiosity, and much to do with narcissism - nationalistic self-glorification on the one hand and, on the other, the feeling that, when we look up, “we expect the heavens to send us back our own image”.

He also describes the sheer weirdness of life down on Earth, as he shoots a delightfully quirky video, to be beamed out into the cosmos to educate any aliens out there about life among the earthlings.

All of this might make the show sound daunting, even pretentious. In fact, it is comic, poignant and endlessly creative, not least with stage technology. Lepage plays both brothers with panache, one a touching loser, the other a vain bully with a hideous ginger goatee beard, and the one-sided telephone conversations between them are often blissfully funny. The account of the death of a goldfish called Beethoven, in particular, strikes me as a small masterpiece of painful humor.

Without drawing the parallel too obviously, it is clear that the troubled relationship between the siblings reflects the competition between American and Russians in the space race, but, just as the USSR and the USA finally came symbolically together in the Apollo-Soyuz mission, so the brother finally achieve détente.

This is a play about coming to terms with failure and pain, and, in its thrillingly staged closing moments, we see the luckless Philippe, a grieving man who blows every chance he gets, suddenly liberated. In an inspired coup de theater that mirrors John Magee’s poem High Flight, Lepage seems to slip “the surly bonds of earth” to “dance the skies on laughter-silvered wings”. This astonishingly talented, deeply sympathetic writer/director/performer is clearly in his element in this stunningly inventive and original show.