Review: Payne – The Stars Are Fire, Jack Studio Theatre

I may still not know what a variable star is but Cecilia Payne did and that’s what matters. Arrows & Traps’ Payne – The Stars Are Fire is a striking play about a most striking woman

“Rope climbing has never been my forte”

Although Stellar Spectra sounds like a first draft of a great drag name, it is a bona fide scientific phenomenon and one which Cecilia Payne revolutionised the thinking around in her time at the Harvard Observatory from 1923 onwards. Who is Cecilia Payne, you might well ask, well that’s kinda the point of this play, shining a light not only on her groundbreaking work in astronomy but on her stoic refusal to wither from her brutal treatment by the male-dominated scientific and academic establishment.

Payne – The Stars Are Fire is the second instalment of The Dyer’s Hand, Arrows & Traps’ new repertory season which opened with Holst – The Music in the Spheres but whilst the plays are interlinked, they also stand alone effectively (although why wouldn’t you see both? it’s a theatrical boxset!). This play picks up the thread of Cecilia Payne’s ongoing education, nurtured so carefully by Gustav Holst at St Paul’s Girls’ School. The recipient of a fellowship that took her to Harvard, her incisive mind soon cracks onto a radical discovery, it just takes the rest of the world a criminally long time to believe her and credit her for her work.

Ross McGregor, pulling double duty as writer and director, illuminates her story most effectively, warmly and wittily depicting her ‘fish out of water’ status as she has to adjust to life in a foreign country and indeed without a servant. And as she takes a moment to find her place in the Harvard Observatory’s graduate team (the camaraderie between whom is just gorgeous), we’re able to explore the strange gender politics of the time, that allowed women to participate in astronomy as long as they were doing what was considered grunt work. 

Not being terribly scientific minded, a sense of mild panic did take over every time anything scientific was said, from variable stars to ionisation, I did feel like I would definitely fail that part of the test. But there’s no confusion about the emotional trajectory here, Laurel Marks excelling at showing the fortitude but also thecost of Payne’s ferocious academic devotion, in social and emotional development that is perhaps a little lacking, particularly in a moment of  tragedy that feels gutwrenchingly real. 

McGregor as director mixes things up a little in Odin Corie’s cleverly worked set, with off-kilter music choices and less of the overt theatricality that typifies much of Arrows & Traps’ work. But given it is so fascinating a story, it is a treatment that works well in its straightforwardness. Marks is also supported by some stellar supporting work – Lucy Ioannou’s vivacious Adelaide Ames is the pal everyone wants, Cornelia Baumann’s tremendous Annie Jump Cannon is the colleague everyone needs (not just for cookies) and Toby Wynn-Davies reprises his wonderfully warm Holst to wrap up The Dyer’s Hand most satisfactorily.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Davor @TheOcularCreative
Payne – The Stars Are Fire is booking at the Jack Studio in rep with Holst – The Music In The Spheres until 19th February

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