Premiering almost exactly half a century after cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the earth, Rona Munro’s lengthy new play for the Royal Shakespeare Company takes as its focal point the chief designer who, though unacknowledged at the time, was the driving force behind the Soviet space programme.
Initially, we see Sergei Korolyov starving and beaten in one of Stalin’s gulags.
Saved from death by a doctor’s ministrations and, subsequently, a timely summons back to Moscow, he pushes himself to the limit developing long range missiles in tandem with pursuing his dream – to design a rocket capable of propelling man into space.
Munro presents us with a wealth of interesting information (from the shifts in political climate to little snippets regarding the height restrictions imposed on the pilots – his “little eagles” – so that they could fit more comfortably within the capsule confines) and a blackly comic scene centring on a human guinea-pig tested beyond the limit.
As Korolyov, Darrell D’Silva exudes the sort of determination guaranteed to inspire devotion in his band of scientists who, like him, were once considered enemies of the people.
There’s good work, too, from Dyfan Dwyfor’s likeable Gagarin (eager for a second voyage into space but too important a national hero to be exposed to such a risk) and from Brian Doherty’s coarse, jokey and enthusiastically supportive Khrushchev.
But some characters come and go too fast to make an impact (Korolyov’s second wife is reduced to just a name mentioned in passing) and there’s a surfeit of extraneous material.
The potential for a really strong play about the Soviet side of the space race is lurking here, but Munro’s ambitious attempt, like the production’s misjudged staging of that first epic flight, takes off and is then left dangling.
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– Louise Kingsley