The Kindness of Strangers garnered less praise from me than it did from most people - although that's not because I disliked it as such, but because it gave me motion sickness. With Shoreditch Town Hall seeming more likely to stay still for 80 minutes than the back of an ambulance, I decided to give Curious Directive another go, with a (hopefully less queasy) trip to their 2014 Fringe First winner, Pioneer. It's 2029*, eight years after an initial mission to send astronauts to Mars ended in disaster, and now a new crew is being sent up amid much publicity. What the public doesn't know is that in the intervening years a top-secret mission has sent a Dutch couple to the planet, and their successful survival has made NASA confident enough to go public with the latest attempt. As they await the new arrivals though, one of the astronauts disappears while carrying out routine repairs. Left alone with just her fears and the ship's computer, his partner Imke (Flora Denman) starts to crack.
So we flash from Imke alone with a HAL-like supercomputer (Caitlin Ince) to mission control, where controller Shari (Avita Jay) gradually lets her new deputy Rudi (Dudley Rees) in on some of the project's darker secrets. Pioneer has an interesting premise, and it's satisfying to try and piece together its multiple strands - which do indeed come together in a way that makes sense. These story strands also include a Russian, Ivan (Jesse Briton,) who's taking his Americanised younger brother Alyosha (James Hardy) on a road trip across Russia in honour of their great-grandfather, a pioneering space scientist.
Jack Lowe's production tells its story through impressive visuals, particularly with its clever design by Cecilia Carey, although even if there's as good a reason as suggesting the weightlessness of space, actors moving in slo-mo is something I'm always going to find a bit naff. A bigger problem though is the overall staging and blocking: The production looks like it was staged for a traditional proscenium arch (one of the producing houses is Watford Palace, where I can imagine this looking great,) but Lowe doesn't seem to have made any allowances for the different kind of performance spaces on the tour. At Shoreditch Town Hall at least, this means the audience sitting right up against a very wide stage, and if like me you're not sitting dead centre it's a struggle to see everything that's going on without spending half the show leaning forward. Certainly the projections I'm sure add a lot more if you've got a head-on view. There's still a lot to enjoy about Pioneer, not least some strong performances keeping it anchored even as its ambition takes it to space, but with a staging that doesn't suit the venue I always felt kept at arm's length.
Pioneer by Jack Lowe, Stephen Bisland, Jesse Briton, David Burnett, Flora Denman, James Hardy, Rob Heaps, Susan Hingley, Caitlin Ince, Your Mum, Naveed Khan, Gabrielle Lombardo, Emily Lloyd-Sani, Avita Jay and Dudley Rees is booking until the 22nd of April at Shoreditch Town Hall; then continuing on tour to Plymouth and Sheffield.
Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes straight through.
*almost half past eight