Writer: Torben Betts
Directors: Alastair Whatley and Charlotte Peters
Original Theatre never do things by halves. Their previous digital projects include an almost fully realised adaption of Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong set in the First World War and running at over 2 hours, then the domestic dementia short Watching Rosie and now they are taking us into space, to the 1970 Apollo 13 mission to the moon. This 65-minute project is a technical marvel that largely eschews the limitations of Zoom boxes to immerse the audience in its dramatic story of astronauts on the brink.
Jack Swigert, Jim Lovell and Fred Haise pilot the Apollo 13 flight to the moon guided by Mission Control. Everything goes to plan until faulty wiring forces them to abort but returning to earth isn’t so easy. Temporarily cut off from the home, the men must bide their time before an escape plan can begin. Meanwhile in the modern day two of the astronauts relive the experience during an interview 50 years on.
Written by Torben Betts, this is not the 1995 Ron Howard movie with Tom Hanks and Kevin Bacon, but Apollo 13 is based on the same events using original transcripts and archive footage to recreate elements of the mission. Betts frames the story as an interview, with Jim and Fred now in old age explaining events to a researcher as the pandemic rages outside. The main thrust of the action is told in flashback with Betts cutting between the dramatically realised memory and the later narration to create tension as events unfold.
The conversation naturally relies on some extended exposition to make the technical challenges of the space flight and the threat to the lives of the men aboard clear – although a serious concern about oxygen levels and an ensuing discussion about the most appropriate modes of death for the astronaut lead to nothing in a tidy ending that denies the viewer the excitement of re-entry.
But while Jack and Fred are argue about politics and Jim wistfully misses his family, it is David Woodhead’s design and Tristan Shepherd’s editing that will impress the most, splicing together archive footage with modern shots of the actors to create space-movie-musts such as scenes of weightlessness or views of the earth and moon from the portal windows. The cinematography glows, rich in colour and depth, which enhances the production values.
Directors Alastair Whatley and Charlotte Peters make plenty of interesting choices, using shots at different angles including slightly off-centre, from above and side-by-sides to imply the effects of space while employing some clever shaky camerawork during lift-off. By cutting from actor to actor and using close shots the fact Apollo 13: Dark Side of the Moon was created under socially distanced conditions barely registers. It certainly pushes at the frontiers of what is currently achievable.
Leading the mission, Christopher Harper has a calm authority as the younger Jim Lovell while his older counterpart Philip Franks exudes a similar practicality when he rightly insists that in the moment “feelings aren’t really what naval aviators discuss.” Michael Salami’s Fred Haise is more easily riled, frustrated by the political divisions within America but keen to advance the science which Geoff Aymer’s version of Haise also supports. Completing the cast, Tom Chambers has a relatively small role as Jack Swigert who enjoys provoking controversy while Poppy Roe and Jenna Augen ensure we hear some female voices as a researcher and Mission Control respectively.
While there’s little time to get to know the astronauts in detail, Original Theatre have created a compelling and technically proficient drama that celebrates this extraordinary mission 50 years on. While the screen cards at the end tell us that these men travelled further than any other human beings, Apollo 13: Dark Side of the Moon successfully completes its own remarkable mission to take the audience on a journey to the moon and back.
Available here until 31 December 2020