Entertainment that successfully combines both science and comedy, it must be said, is a rarer event than a transit of Venus. This is not science’s fault: anyone who has ever sat next to a physicist nerd-snorting their way through an episode of The Big Bang Theory knows that science humour is just lost on some people.
In the Air Tonight, directed by Jeremy Brull and currently on the stage in Sydney, is one of the those rare plays. In 1989, two Australian ‘oztronauts’ were chosen for a top secret manned mission to Pluto. The two lucky people chosen were Jared (Paul Ayre), a child prodigy, and Xavier (David Collins), a genius tortured by his fiancee’s decision to dump him just days before the mission launch.
The play is set in 2006, after the duo have already spent almost two decades in the spacecraft with only each other for company, and just before – embarrassingly – Pluto is demoted from one of the big boys of the Solar System to a mere ‘planetoid’.
Many of you will remember growing up in the halcyon days when Pluto was still considered a planet and, truth is, we were all rather fond of it: there’s something just so cute and adorable about a tiny, lonely, cold lump of rock named after the Greco-Roman god of the underworld. And perhaps that’s one of the reasons why, after you finish laughing, you realise this play has tugged at the heart strings a little too.
The technological breakthroughs of the late 1980s meant that the spacecraft’s stereo system could hold up to 15 songs, picked by random submission of the mission crew. Unfortunately for the duo, the launch of the mission coincided with Phil Collins releasing his latest album, meaning all the spots were taken by Phil Collins’ greatest hits.
If you’ve ever wondered what you could do for 17 years while trapped in a small spacecraft, well, this answers it for you. As it turns out, there is quite a lot, including my highlight: a game of chess with ‘space rules’, which are never fully revealed to the audience.
Of course, the protagonists struggle with the isolation and loneliness in the depths of space: Xavier only wishes he had one more night with his ex-fiancee; Jared has a groovy kind of love with a 120-line computer program; and they both, with all their endearing geekiness, try to comprehensively analyse the reasons why Xavier’s fiancee dumped him, through endless reenactments of the break-up.
And, all the while, there is a large dose of Stockholm Syndrome-type sentimentality for Phil Collins.
All this goes to show, well, science can be funny. As Einstein once said, it all just depends upon your frame of reference.
For bookings: www.sydneycomedyfest.com.au or (02) 9020 6966