Little Eagles, Hampstead Theatre, London


High-flyers come back down to earth

The question of how the Royal Shakespeare Company re-states its commitment to new writing is at last being tackled by artistic director Michael Boyd and his team, and a new play by Rona Munro, about the early days of the Soviet space programme, seems a good place to start the company's 50th anniversary year.

Peter Hall sent the RSC into orbit at more or less the same time as Yuri Gagarin left the launch pad, one of the "little eagles" of the unsung hero, designer and engineer Sergei Pavlovich Korolyov.

Munro tells his story as a scientific progress from his lucky survival in one of Stalin's gulags – "our enemies are right in the heart of our great nation, like rats in a barrel of wheat" intones the old tyrant on the frozen steppes – to national hero, backroom boffin legend and pawn in the political manoeuvrings of the Cold War.

But half way through, Munro – and the audience – becomes more interested in Gagarin himself, who's survived his own personal gulag of sleep deprivation and oxygen tests to become the man who first touched the stars and then, like David Bowie, fell to earth.

This shift of emphasis creates a fatal schism in the play and railroads it from being a modern version of Brecht's Galileo into a much tamer sort of historical survey, with Korolyov battling against both Kruschev's patriotic demands and his own serious heart condition.

It's important that a company with the resources (even after Arts Council cuts) of the RSC should attempt to renew the epic drama in this way. The trouble here is that the subject is more interesting than the people Munro has actually written, whatever their qualities in real life. The RSC ensemble tries valiantly to inject some personality into a long list of wooden characters and supernumeraries, but unexpected ethnicity or Celtic fire are never going to be sufficient. Greg Hicks does best as a ghost of the gulag and a brutal army officer.

Designer Ti Green creates a large ground level arena which director Roxana Silbert populates with dying prisoners, marching guards and soldiers, get-fit astronauts and scientists.

A huge shard-like steel rocket soars, immobile, into the sky, a model of Sputnik rotates spikily into view and, after flying like Raymond Briggs's Snowman into space, Gagarin touches down, dragging a huge parachute behind him, into a field of mystified peasants. That scene is the most moving in a play that otherwise sounds pre-programmed, like the space flight itself.

One of the peasants is played by Sandy Neilson, who doubles as the lunatic-sounding Uncle Joe of the prologue, and Brian Doherty has a minor field day, too, with Nikita Khrushchev, delightfully bald and uncouth, speaking in oaths and toasts.

Boyd's RSC ensemble is now divided between the new theatre in Stratford and this Hampstead season, just as Peter Hall's first company shuttled between Stratford and the Aldwych. It will be fascinating to see how they come through together in a year's time.

To 7 May (020 7722 9301)

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk