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A CurtainUp London Review
One of these prisoners is Sergei Pavlovich Korolyov (Darrell D'Silva), a scientist, yes a rocket scientist! Saved by the doctor by sheer chance, he is called back from the prison camp to work alongside other ex-prisoners on Krushchev's (Brian Doherty) rocket programme, designed to launch a potential attack on the United States but what Korolykov has in mind is to apply the same technology in the exploration of space.
This work is the historical narrative of the Soviet Space programme which saw Yuri Gagarin (Dyfan Dwyfor) as the first man in space. The Little Eagles of the title are the pilots selected by the Soviet regime for training as potential cosmonauts. However after initial successes in the space race, under resourced compared with the United States space programme, the Soviet initiative starts to fall behind. Rona Munro's account is well researched within the limitations of access to the Soviet archive. There is the political context as we move forward to look at the Soviet support of Castro's Cuba and the assassination of President Kennedy with the impact that has on Soviet aggression.
Directed by Roxana Silbert, this is essentially a human tale of a nice man, Korolyov, who was denounced by his wife Xenia (Hannah Young) before she herself could be denounced. We see him reunited with his daughter Natasha (Debbie Korley) who decides against a career as a scientist. Throughout the play, Korolyov encounters the doctor (Noma Dumezwemi) whom he first met in the gulag. Playing two pivotal roles is the sonorous Greg Hicks as the old man in the camp and later as a general, Geladze, a hardliner who articulates memories of the oppressed life before the revolution.
Brian Doherty gives a commanding performance with great humanity and glimpses of humour as the candidly, foul mouthed Krushchev with Philip Edgerley as his number two, Breshnev, waiting in the wings to take over power when the opportunity arises. We like too Gagarin and the four other "Little Eagles" thrust into the limelight and hoisted onstage in orange space suits so they can spin and fall as if weightless in the spacecraft.
I suspect Rona Munro's play may be a little light on those expecting the full scientific analysis but the personalities are well drawn so that the human interest story is there. John Mackay is Glushko whose star fades only to rise again in the political minefield of Soviet favouritism. There is a tragedy too when corners are cut as scientists are put under pressure.
Only the National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company have the finances to develop a work with so many actors. Ti Green's monumental set has a slide of aluminium and rivets to give some idea of the scale if the rockets. There is good miming in the gulag of the oppression and hard labour mining rocks and cutting ice. I liked too the staging of the scenes in the laboratories with grey coated scientists scurrying about while Korolyov barks orders at them. There are powerful moments too when we see the cosmonauts tested for G force to the limits of physical endurance.
Rona Munro states that she had a trilogy in mind when she commenced this play. Developed in association with Davidson College North Carolina. I suspect another two plays to add to this three hour version might be a space odyssey too far.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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