Hampstead Theatre, London NW3
Opened 21 April, 2011

Rona Munro set out to write a trilogy about the heyday of space exploration and found that the first of her projected plays became a portrait of the Soviets’ “Chief Designer”, whose identity remained a state secret until his death in 1967. Over the previous two decades, Sergei Pavlovich Korolyov had been the principal driving force behind the engineering of the USSR’s ICBM programme, Sputnik and Vostok space projects and the early stages of Soyuz. While the Americans had their “pet Germans” led by Wernher von Braun, with thousands of workers and billions of dollars, remarks one character, “we had Sergei Pavlovich and convicts and some university students”. A secondary focus is the first group of cosmonauts, from whom Yuri Gagarin emerged as a Soviet icon, “the perfect proletarian candidate” for first man in space.

However, the material resists attempts to turn it into a Soviet version of The Right Stuff, partly because of the theorist Korolyov’s centrality to the entire programme and partly because here politics always trumps heroism. The opening image of Roxana Silbert’s production is a juxtaposition of patriotic oratory from Stalin with inmates in a gulag, including Korolyov. The environment in which he later worked was one of constantly shifting allegiances, denunciations, factions and ideologically based decision-making; almost in passing, we see Krushchev being ousted by Brezhnev. (Munro is excellent at introducing figures such as these two and Gagarin in ways which are dramatically unshowy but elicit an “Oh, so THAT’S who he is!” moment in the viewer.)

Darrell D’Silva is fine casting as Korolyov, possessed of an unconventional charisma that makes you imagine you can smell the sweat of even intellectual labour. Noma Dumezweni seems at first underused as the doctor who threads through his life, until a second-act duologue that binds the two together powerfully. Brian Doherty is an exuberantly foul-mouthed Krushchev, Dyfan Dwyfor a Gagarin always smiling and lucky until his career peaks too early and leaves him nothing else to do, and Greg Hicks enjoys his unreconstructed rumblings as the Stalinist military supervisor of the engineering projects. Ultimately, though, this is a good evening rather than a great one: it is not simply our unfamiliarity with Korolyov which makes two and three-quarter hours of his story feel a bit of a slog.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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