Monday June 17, 2024


By Diana Simmonds
March 21 2024

MERCURY POISONING, Snatched Collective & White Box at KXT bAKEHOUSE on Broadway, 15-30 March 2024. Pix by Clare Hawley: above - Teodora Matovic weightless in space; below - Shawnee Jones and Jack Richardson in Not Star Trek; below again - Captain NotKirk Richardson

Succinctly and accurately described on the KXT website, Mercury Poisoning is most definitely “Madeleine Stedman’s mammoth debut play”. It’s inarguably mammoth – a cast of 12 playing multiple characters – and its imaginative reach is as limitless as its setting: the original 1960s space race between the USA and USSR. Beyond that, as a set of parallel narratives, it’s also as wildly, crazily ambitious as the space race itself and that it’s Stedman’s debut play heralds the arrival of a major talent.

During its (way too long, but never mind) running time, various historical figures vie for attention or are referred to in crackling static radio broadcasts (Kennedy, Khrushchev, etc). There’s American aviation pioneer and air racer Jackie Cochran (Melissa Jones), Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (Jack Richardson), and American astronaut John Glenn (Shaw Cameron). Then there are those who are the product of the playwright’s supercharged imagination.

Also dreaming of space flight is Molly (Teodora Matovic), a precocious American pilot aspiring to be the first American female in orbit. And Valeria (Violette Ayad), a zealous Komsomol apparatchik who does go into space. As their stories progress it becomes steadily clearer that they are living not only in opposing political worlds but also under the unreconstructed repression of post-war sexism and male supremacy. And it’s worse in the Free World than under Khrushchev!


At the same time Nicole (Shawnee Jones), an aspiring actress from Absolutely-Nowhere, Oklahoma also star gazes – but at those inset onto Hollywood Boulevard. Against the odds (she’s Black, after all), and by mistake, she lands a part in a TV series pilot for a sci-fi adventure. Not Ahura or Star Trek, however, but instead hilariously reminiscent of the unintentional cult woefulness of Blake’s 7 and the very intentional cult woefulness of Galaxy Quest.

To get these three central narratives off the launching pad and into their various orbits also involves hordes of bureaucrats, US senators, Soviet functionaries, TV make-up girls, cosmo- and astronauts, bouffant-ed wives, handsy hubbies, stone-faced officials, and assorted successes and failures along the way. All are portrayed with dizzying switches of accent, costume, and conviction by (A-to-Z) Shaw Cameron, Anna Clark, Nikita Khromykh, Tinashe Mangwana, Brendan Miles, Charlotte Salusinszky, and Sarah Jane Starr.

Director Kim Hardwick pulls off an extraordinary feat of crafting and corralling both choreography and performance – ensemble and individual. She’s ably assisted by dialect and accent coach Linda Nicholls-Gidley. Production designer Meg Anderson does miracles with a parachute that becomes a living breathing universe – or the disappeared night sky. And the latter effect has a lot to do with Jimi Rawlings’ lighting design that also plays tricks with the traverse stage. Soundscape and FX, by Rowan Yeomans and Jay Rae, are equally witty and powerful and, all in all, the creative team is exceptional. As are Violette Ayad, Shawnee Jones, Sarah Jane Starr, and Teodora Matovic.


Mercury Poisoning is a remarkable debut, flaws and all. The main flaw, at the moment, is its length as the playwright seems determined to tell each of her chosen stories and histories to her complete satisfaction. Nevertheless, not such a flawed flaw, as crazy brave ambition will always trump neat and tidy expectations. The final scenes are touching in ways both sweet and unforeseen, and the journey is absorbing and rewarding. Recommended without hesitation but maybe take a cushion.



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