Star rating – 8/10
This fantastic new play by Rona Munro’s is another triumph for the RSC. The ensemble cast is really packed with talent, and with one notable exception, for me at least, an acting master class. It is the fascinating true story of the Soviet obsession with dominating space, and beating Kennedy and the Americans with their Cosmonauts. As with all true stories, we know how it ends, which adds pathos and irony to the efforts.
What is not so well known is who was the brains behind the Soviet endeavour, Sergei Korolyov, and this play is his gripping story. He was one of the many victims of Stalin’s purges, and is languishing in the gulag when we first meet him. But the Soviet leaders realised that they were badly in need of people with his technical brilliance to defeat Hitler, and so he won his freedom, and the chance to build a rocket ship to the stars. And we get a real sense of how the Cosmonauts such as Yuri Gagarin were celebrity superstars under the direction of Roxana Silbert. The staging is inspired too, with fantastic space scenes on the small Hampstead Theatre stage working wonderfully well.
The play is very amusing in places too, my favourite scene being with Brian Doherty giving a wonderful performance as Khrushchev, who takes over the direction of the space programme from Stalin as the First Citizen, and shows a keen interest in it being successful. The cast are marvellous, with stand out performances from Doherty; Darrel D’Silva as the gruff genius Korolyov, who sacrifices his health and personal happiness for his space age dream; John Mackay as a negative bureaucrat; and Noma Dumezweni as the Doctor. They way they gel together so well is a brilliant product of the ensemble system, of using the same actors as the basis for a season of RSC plays, and it has paid off here as with other great plays last season like Julius Caesar and King Lear.
I only have a couple of quibbles, one minor, one more significant. The first is with a running time including the interval of 3 hours it felt a little overlong, and could probably done with a bit of slight pruning in parts. But the main problem for me is , and I know I have said this before and most do not agree with me, but I just don’t get the way Greg Hicks speaks. It annoyed me when he was Julius Caesar, and rankled when he was King Lear. It still annoys and irritates me now. His intonation sounds plainly unnatural to me. However I accept that I am in the minority here and that most people love him. I can’t for the life of me see why but there you go.
Overall a fascinating, gripping, and exciting play with an excellent cast which deserves all the praise it will undoubtedly get and is a great reminder of the space race, made all the more poignant in the 50th anniversary year of Gagarin’s ground breaking space mission, and the current dismantling of the American space shuttle programme, leaving the Russians free to dominate outer space once more. Now there’s a thought.