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STAGE REVIEW: Tim Walker on Matthew Broderick’s failure to launch in The Starry Messenger

Matthew Broderick and Rosalind Eleanor are 'perplexing' in The Starry Messenger, says Tim Walker; Photo: Marc Brenner - Credit: Archant

TIM WALKER’s latest stage review says a career revival for aging teen idol Matthew Broderick has failed to launch.

What does Matthew Broderick, the fresh-faced, teen-idol star of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, do when he gets older? He makes an attempt at relaunching his career on the West End stage. I’m not quite sure if The Starry Messenger is the vehicle to get him to break through into this new atmosphere, but he gives it everything he’s got.

Kenneth Lonergan’s play is a strange, idiosyncratic and often perplexing piece of theatre that makes its points in its own good time, and it requires of Broderick a performance that is counter-intuitively under-powered, if not actually lethargic.

The revolving stage shifts the action from his classroom where he lectures on astronomy to the home he shares with his dreary wife (Elizabeth McGovern) to the hospital bed of a man on the brink of death (Jim Norton), to the flat where the old man’s nurse (Rosalind Eleazar) resides with her young son. For each situation he finds himself in, Broderick has to adopt the same look of bemused detachment: he runs the whole gamut of emotions from A to just a bit beyond A.

The stories become interwoven when the world-weary lecturer begins an affair with the nurse and an unexpected tragedy takes their relationships – shallow and perfunctory, initially – to a deeper level. Grey-haired now, Broderick has a gift for deadpan humour and there are a lot of laughs to be had in the first act as the punters assume they are watching a straight comedy.

In all honesty, I’m not sure if either the star or the punters find it altogether easy to adjust to the dramatic handbrake turn in the second act.

With all the talk about the cosmos, Lonergan – best known for his screenplay for Manchester by the Sea – invites us to see a bigger picture in all of this, but its message isn’t ultimately any more profound than stuff happens.

Downton Abbey’s McGovern is wasted as the wife with not a single decent line to deliver, and even Broderick – essentially playing the foil to all the other characters – gets little, if any, chance to shine. The stand-out performances in Sam Yates’ production are both to be found among the supporting players. Jenny Galloway is hilarious as a dim housewife in the astronomy class who takes everything much too literally, and Sid Sagar has the funniest scene of all when, as a know-it-all student, he coolly presents his lecturer with his notes about how he could improve his performance.

Cut an hour out of this three-hour production – and give its stars a bit more to work with – and it could yet prove to be a lot more entertaining than it is.

n The National’s production of Githa Sowerby’s classic Rutherford and Son is, meanwhile, another example of harmless and professionally- staged theatre that somehow fails to quite hit the high notes. Polly Findlay directs with a grim sense of determination, and the greatest pleasure to be had is Roger Allam’s “ee-ba-gum” northern accent. I don’t suggest for one moment that he meant it to be funny, but funny it most assuredly is.