|No escape: Soviet brass pay their respects to the remains of cosmonaut Komarov|
The Blue Room Theatre until August 26
I grew up with spacemen.
They would appear in their white spacesuits and be gone, impossibly upwards, and we would gaze up at the Great Beyond and wonder at the thought of a human riding across it.
The greatest of them was the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (St John Cowcher), the first man in space. It was two days after my seventh birthday, and I was lost among the stars.
Scott McArdle’s Laika: A Staged Radio Play is a gripping and inventive tribute to the men and women (and dogs) of the Soviet Space Programme who lived and died behind the secrets and lies of that shadowy empire.
McArdle has taken some liberties with history, but he’s done so with excellent control and to the great benefit of his story. It was the cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, not Gagarin, who died when his spacecraft plummeted back to earth in 1967 (Gagarin died a year later in a fighter jet crash) but the terrible story is brilliantly told. There were no cosmonauts aboard Sputnik 7 and 8, but we grieve for them nevertheless as they burn and drift into the dark.
The play’s main narrative creation is Natalya Volkov (Taryn Ryan), a technician and candidate cosmonaut who lives through the triumphs and failures of the space programme. Through her we meet the legendary “Chief Designer” Sergei Korolev (Arielle Gray), the feuding missile designers Mikhail Yangel (Cowcher) and Vasily Mishin (Daniel Buckle), and the cosmonauts.
Volkov is a terrific character, brave, wounded, full of hope and fury, and Ryan is a star in the making. Cowcher and Gray are already stars, and are well supported by Buckle and the Foley artist Andrew David, whose sound effects, along with Robert Woods’s compositions and George Ashforth’s historical projections on Sara Nives Chirichilli’s moody set give the play a most impressive look, sound and feel.
As its title suggests, McArdle’s conceit is that this is a radio play, read by a group of friends who stumble across an old script in a deserted studio. There’s no reason to get particularly excited about this top-and-tailing expedient, but it’s a brief and inoffensive vehicle for the telling of a story of real power and quality.
This review appeared in The Weekend West Australian 16.9.17