Interview: Alastair Michael Talks Ransack Theatre’s “Catching Comets”

February 2022

Ransack Theatre’s “Catching Comets” is a “multi-dimensional genre mashup” which sees a lonely heart find love and action hero status all at once. Promising honesty and laughter through an ambitious merging of rom-com and action, the play offers up an exploration of love, vulnerability and the impact of notions of masculinity. “Catching Comets” is touring until late March 2022, so I caught up with the lead of the play, Alastair Michael, who chats here about the Ransack’s vision and process when it comes to making work which is both accessible and surprising for audiences…

Catching Comets has previously enjoyed a successful run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe – what was the general reception like back in 2019 and what has the journey for the show been between then and now?

It seems so long ago now, but we can still remember Edinburgh Festival 2019. Before it all happened. At the Festival, we had lovely audiences who were up for a good time and we sold out shows and received lots of very positive reviews. The show seemed to easily connect with people, both when we were talking to them about it while flyering and in the performances themselves. Since then, the play hasn’t changed a lot. It’s become more settled and smoother. I take my time over it a little bit more whereas before I had to speed through it to fit it into our 60-minute slot at the Pleasance. As a result, I think it’s a better show.

As an award-winning company dedicated to pushing at “the boundaries of live experience”, and with a back-catalogue including site-specific productions, what would you say tends to be the driving force when it comes to selecting the next show for Ransack Theatre?

We’ve begun to realise that the common denominator in all our shows is that they are always informed by recognisable genre tropes. We try to make theatre that is accessible to people who don’t regularly go to theatre and we think that genre is a great way for people to find a familiar way into an unfamiliar imaginary world. Once we’re inside the genre we’re keen to play with people’s expectations and there is often some technical trickery in our shows too.

So the obvious question now is: what drew you to this one man show which tells “two stories at the same time: a disaster movie about falling in love AND a rom-com about the end of the world”?

As a company established by a group of friends, we prioritise having fun when making all our work. And we were drawn to making this show because it was a fun concept. We haven’t been disappointed; it has probably the most fun we’ve had on any of our plays so far.

Catching Comets is described in part as a “multi-dimensional genre mashup”. How have you gone about creating this on stage?

A combination of different theatrical elements have been integrated into the show to create this. It started with a script which is theatrically unique. We have a brilliant design team that have worked together to create a really special experience that enhances that script. The sound design, the lighting design, the movement direction and the set design all work to create the bombastic and cosmic as well as the everyday and the real, resulting in a mashup show which blurs the line between reality and fiction.

By mashing up the rom-com and action/ disaster genres, the show promises to be both heart-warming and funny. How would you characterise the comedy element here – are we heading into spoof territory at any point?

For sure there is some action movie spoofing in the play. Lots of fun physical comedy and silly jokes. But the baseline comedy comes from a big-hearted place that shares Toby’s embarrassment and awkwardness, particularly in the first throes of a new relationship.

And Playwright Piers Black has spoken about the way perceptions of “being manly” can be linked to classic action heroes who are worshipped in youth but often retrospectively prove to be problematic role models. Would you say the landscape has improved when it comes to modern action heroes and their depictions of masculinity?

It’s come a long way since the 1980s where action heroes were infallible masculine ideals. There is definitely a much greater diversity of heroes in the modern action film landscape. Of course, some of these heroes are still straight out the Stallone and Schwarzenegger playbook, such as Hemsworth’s Thor or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in the new Fast & Furious. But largely action heroes are far more broken and capable of vulnerability. The wedding of heroism with masculinity is shifting too. The whole Bond franchise (arguably one of the more historically misogynistic and problematic) has been given a fresh perspective and the new Matrix film does it’s best to subvert your expectations of who the real hero of the film is. And yet, as studios continue to reboot action classics to drag an existing audience to the cinema (Top Gun being next) then there is always the danger that the heroes of these “new” films will be share some of their predecessors’ values.

Would you go as far as to say that examining damaging gender expectations and stereotypes is at the very heart of Catching Comets?

The heart of the show is Toby’s struggle to be vulnerable and open in his relationship. From a broader point of view, this is about what we risk to be brave in love. Something a lot of people can relate to, no matter their gender. But as a one man show, it is from a male perspective and so the damaging aspects of masculinity are definitely being examined in this too. We push this further examination further with the clash between the love story and the action movie.

It’s great to learn that Ransack Theatre is collaborating with Beyond Equality, a charity who work with boys and men towards gender equality, inclusive communities and healthier relationships – how did that collaboration come about and what does it mean to you to be able to engage with such a charity while creating work for the stage?

We’ve been aware of Beyond Equality’s work for a couple of years because they are quite active in Manchester (where we are based) and I’ve been really interested to do their workshop training. The collaboration came about over email. We got in touch and they were interested in the play and saw value in working together, which is great! After previous performances of Catching Comets, we’ve had parents come up to us and say “we really wish that our boys had been here to see this”, and so I think engaging with Beyond Equality as we continue to do the show should help us signpost those people in the right direction and offer pathways after seeing the show. Affecting change towards gender equality is a team effort after all.

Overall, what would you say this energised genre mash-up aims to achieve in terms of audience experience?

We aim for people to be surprised, entertained, transported and ultimately moved by the play.

And finally, what would you say to those thinking about booking to see Catching Comets who haven’t yet taken the leap?

This will be your last chance. We are touring the UK in March this year, but after we are moving on to our next show. So, if Catching Comets sounds like your thing, this is it. Come along. You won’t regret it.

So there you have it! You can catch “Catching Comets” on tour until March 26th, 2022 – including a performance at Harrogate Theatre on March 4th. For tour dates, venues and ticket information, head here.

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