Theatre Review - 'Little Eagles'

Posted by Alexander Hay

Reaching for the stars in this tale of Soviet space exploration

Reaching for the stars in Little Eagles

The personal, political and scientific are seamlessly intertwined in Rona Munro’s taut and ambitious play Little Eagles (Hampstead Theatre) that celebrates both the RSC’s half-centenary and 50 years since Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space.

But the play tells the extraordinary and little-known story of Sergei Korolyov, the unsung hero behind the success of the Soviet space programme. We first encounter Korolyov as a prisoner of the Gulag in 1938 for allegedly mishandling funds. However he becomes the lucky recipient of a female doctor’s life saving vaccine. The protagonist’s engineering skills then propel him from an enemy of the people into a key figure in the Soviet rocket development programme. Backed by Kruschev, he is allowed to pursue his dream of space exploration as long as he works on long-range missiles.

Under the leadership of this remarkable man the ‘little eagles’ of the USSR manage to trounce the Americans in the space race achieving a series of firsts, including the first man in space. But a combination of the Cuban missile crisis, the military demands of his political masters Kruschev and Brezchev and his own failing health ensure that Korolyov, who died in 1966, is never able to capitalise on his triumphs.

Munro packs a lot into her illuminating but overlong play which features a large group of characters, some of whom like Korolyov’s wife are sketchily written. Nevertheless the pace is fast with rapid scene changes and several memorable scenes, most notably when Brezhnev ruthlessly assumes power from Kruschev, then dismisses Korolyov and hands the space programme to his jealous rival, a decision which proves disastrous.

Director Roxana Silbert achieves a fine balance between documentary fact and dramatic power and draws strong performances from her well drilled RSC ensemble, of whom Darrell D’Silva as the visionary, driven Korolyov, a man who dreams of travelling ‘beyond the edge of the air, out into the sparkling dark and out of the reach of gravity to the other side of the Moon’ and who manages to pursue his goal in the challenging political climate of the Cold War, stands out. Strong support is provided by Brian Doherty as Kruschev, Philip Edgerley as Brezhnev, Dyfan Dwyfor as Gagarin and Noma Dumezweni as the doctor.

Limited season until May 7.

Box office: 020 7727 9301

Press: 020 7845 0513

By Laurence Green

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Alexander Hay

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