Kate Onyett lives and works in Oxford, UK, doing her bit for the NHS and the sick of England. When not nursing a doctor’s ego, she can be found reading and reviewing speculative fiction, and is open to suggestions and submissions for such (gizmomogwai at hotmail dot co dot uk). Her interest in the speculative found full flowering at university, when she talked her tutors into letting her write first about vampires, and then about pirates. Yarr.
It is 1972, and Poppy Munday travels down from South Shields in North England to seek her fortune and make something of herself in the Big Smoke that is hip and happening London. Supported by an older, worldlier cousin and a motherly landlady, Poppy overcomes homesickness and near tragedy (her favourite glam rocker survives being shot at while on stage) to win a competition to meet that same idol, Vince Cosmos. Foiling a second assassination attempt plunges her into Vince’s world of intergalactic adventure and intrigue. She joins forces with him and the strange little man from the upstairs flat to stop Martians taking over the world, one sequinned boot-step at a time.
Vince Cosmos is a funky, lively mix that harks back directly to the comfy, cosy adventures of late 70s, early 80s sci-fi adventures at tea time (the era of my own youth), and there is more than a whiff of classic Doctor Who about the style and tone of the play. This is not surprising, given that it is the brainchild of Paul Magrs, a respected fantasy and sci-fi author who has written for Doctor Who, and whose books are quirky gems, written with a humorously light touch. This is not grand, epic space opera, nor a grinding, angst-filled dramatic ‘event’. But it is a lot of fun, with an appealingly innocent sensibility. These are adventures where nothing so awfully terrible happens that the heroes cannot save the day, and where more potentially dangerous events are exciting instead of intimidating, leaving the heroes undeterred and unscathed. A theatre may be blown up, and a hotel suite shot up, but no one is killed. Baddies escape to make trouble for another day and death and grief are quite ‘alien’ to this nostalgic tale.
The story comes directly through Poppy’s point of view, narrating her own adventures, and we learn bit by bit about glam-rock detecting only as she becomes initiated. She emerges as an amazed but centred young woman, with a brave, pragmatic streak. She steps in and instigates a fair bit of the action, saving the day more than once, but is happy to let Vince to take the limelight. As for Vince himself, Magrs ideas for glam-rock era music-making and Martian-hunting culminated in the question “What if Ziggy Stardust really was an alien?” and Vince was born in glorious stereo format. He is a pitch-perfect clone of Bowie’s most famous creation: dolled up in outrageous costumes and makeup, his attitude one of light insouciance, his music based on the ethic of prog-rock space opera. The role of Vince, thanks to Ziggy’s enduring influence, is a tremendously strong underpinning for the entire premise. Vince’s angle is what he does offstage; his assertion that he and his sidekick know the ‘truth’ about Martians; invaders sneaking in by stealth, against whom he does battle. Sometimes vain and self-centred, Vince can seem shallow, although a final ‘good night’ phone call with Poppy to make sure she is OK at the conclusion of the play’s events shows that he can be sweetly thoughtful on occasion.
Aliens Among Us may seem a little cliché, but are not so surprising to Poppy. A quick précis of history between her and Vince midway through reveals that in this version of 1972, Martians really did try to invade at the end of the nineteenth century, and not just in the imagination of H.G. Wells. When the strong-arm tactics failed, the Martians retreated and are now apparently using more subtle infiltration techniques to achieve their nefarious ends.
But do not be mislead, there is no comparison to be made about paranoid, ‘them within us’ politics, Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style. Colours, flashy false fronts and hidden identities shimmer and dance lightly across this narrative, adding interest and only allowing for dramatic reveals in suitably exciting moments. Accusations of intentional gravitas would be completely inaccurate, and unfair. There has never been the intention — from author to production to finished product — that this is about anything but what it presents: colourful adventures and exciting scrapes. At the end of the day, the baddies are baddies and the goodies are goodies, operating under the banner of righteous defence.
The events of the play have a distinct voice…that of a very British form of nostalgia, a tone at which Magrs excels. It was an exciting time, as in the 70s new possibilities were straining at the leash of tradition British social norms, especially in the melting-pot of London. With its nostalgic, golden glow, encapsulated by the hopeful Poppy, come to seek her fortune down south, and who ends up with a whole lot more, the play is an ambassador for rosy-tinted memory. The overall effect is a merchandising of the near-past into a convivial, more positive time. And it tugs at the memories of anyone grown into adulthood, who can still recall the wide-eyed passions of youth, before life got complicated and serious.
Yes, this is, compared to some sci-fi, as light as a feather. But the high production values and strong, cheerful performances; especially from Lauren Kellegher as perky Poppy and smooth-tonsiled Julian Rhind-Tutt as Vince, mean that it is a hugely enjoyable bit of froth. As a package Vince Cosmos is a neat, lovingly crafted little bubble of historical flavour. It is a reinvented 1970s Britain with some brilliant characterisations, produced with an eye firmly on the fun. And it is on this, it’s highest and most amiable merit, it should be judged. Bafflegab’s production works in magical symbiosis with Magrs’s writing, producing a top-notch product that entertains and amuses, with starry potential for future episodes.