Rona Munro’s Little Eagles opens the new RSC season at Hampstead Theatre: the first cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, went into orbit 50 years ago, but the play is firstly about the chief designer and “unsung hero” of the space race, Sergei Pavlovich Korolyov.
His engineering career is charted in a series of epic scenes from the gulags of Stalin to the design conferences, rocky meetings with an ebullient, coarse-grained President Kruschev, and the launch pad where Gagarin departs to touch the stars and defend the Motherland.
Roxana Silbert’s production is interesting, but not very exciting, laid out by designer Ti Green across a wide, grey stage dominated by a steel shard, part sculpture, part rocket. This area is flooded by a succession of apparatchiks, politicians (Leonid Brezhnev glowers at Kruschev’s shoulder), soldiers and engineers.
Try as he may, and for all his fleshiness as an actor, Darrell D'Silva cannot make us care very much about Korolyov, who comes across as a decent, determined scientific visionary with a fair amount of courage and a boring personal life. In the gulag, saved by the last available injection, he is haunted by Greg Hicks’ dying compatriot and promises to send up a rocket with his name on it.
We hear the first silvery sound of Sputnik, the ominous rumblings of the Cuban missile crisis and the Cold War ranting of Kruschev at the United Nations. Korolyov also has the battle of replacing the proposed warheads with a satellite; his experimental fervour is beset on all sides by nationalistic drum-beating.
In this context, the purity of Gagarin’s heroism shines even stronger, and Dyfan Dwyfor delivers a genuinely charming performance, especially in the scene where he becomes the man who fell to earth among the peasants, dragging his parachute behind him.
Otherwise, the acting looks strained and underpowered, a mixture of colour-blind casting and Scottish emphasis that borders on the perverse, but with versatile contributions from Charles Aitken, Noma Dumezweni, John Mackay and Samantha Young.