A vivid imagining of hidden secrets of the Soviet Space Race.
Scott McArdle and Second Chance Theatre celebrate classic radio plays with a compelling performance sharing a tale of Soviet science and pride.
Taking shelter from a sudden storm, a group of wedding guests discover a deserted recording studio in perfect working order, despite the creeping mould on the walls. As the weather settles in they seize the classic microphones, getting drawn into the drama as they amuse themselves with a set of scripts for a play called Laika.
Laika is returning to Earth, her barking growing distressed. Chief Designer Korolev stands listening stony-faced as technicians Vasily Mishin and Natalia Volkov report rapidly increasing capsule temperatures. Korolev orders them to 'mute the feed' and to invent a cover story for Premiere Khrushchev’s public announcement. Mishin rants about deception, while Volkov reminds him of the greater purpose of their work.
Volkov constantly dreams of leaving Earth. Literally bumping into Yuri Gagarin, she shares her dream and creates an instant friendship. On a disastrous first mission, Volkov’s intervention saves his life. An outraged Korolev punishes Volkov’s disobedience with indefinite banishment to archives duty. While filing, Volkov finds evidence of careless deaths, redacted cosmonaut records and longstanding deceptions. Korolev’s glorious career has been built on lies, ignoring fatal consequences for personal acclaim.
On Korolev’s death, marked by a state funeral, Mishin is promoted. Recalled from the archives, Volkov shares her discoveries with Mishin, who promises a new era of accountability, safety checks and humanity. Working with Mishin and Gagarin again, Volkov has to choose between glory and integrity.
Taryn Ryan takes Volkov’s journey from detached efficiency to passionate advocacy. Despite the radio aspect of the whole performance, Ryan maintains a consistently believable physical presence to convey Volkov’s childhood scars that overshadow her career. Daniel Buckle as Mishin captures a contrasting journey, his craven responses perfectly delivered as his character relinquishes moral indignation for the chance of fame. St John Cowcher as Yangel perfectly captures the cocky engineer undone by hubris, as he competes for triumph. As Gagarin, Cowcher endears himself to all (except Buckle’s glowering Mischin) with his inherent good humour and effortless charisma. Ryan and Cowcher form a believable bond between their characters to drive strong emotional impact during mission sequences, avoiding melodrama. Gray tackles the role of Korolev with relish, her youth discarded to become a taciturn, dour old man, carrying power through his broad shoulders and brooding moods. Commencing as comic relief, Andrew David commandeers the sound effects desk as the live Foley artist, creating a dialogue-enhancing soundscape to immerse the audience in a different place and time.
McArdle’s lighting design clearly delineates the intertwined storylines, the modern day merrymakers from the secretive world of the Soviet space race. David’s sound design is perfect, with the appearance of the behind the scenes world of effects intriguing in its own way, a boot plodding on a tray of gravel, a miniature door to slam, and the deft co-ordination of spare players to create realistic sounds from a chatter-filled cafeteria to a failed rocket launch. Sara Chirichilli’s set design captures the dingy studio, but allows for George Ashforth’s timely projections behind the actors, filling in the gaps for smooth jumps between scenes and the introduction of further characters without extensive explanatory dialogue slowing the action.
As director, McArdle plays with the dichotomies of performer presentation to bring a layer of radio play realism to the stage – in the radio format, it does not matter that the diminutive Gagarin is played by lanky Cowcher, and Gray’s Soviet-style scowl dominates beyond her party dress costume. An absorbing storyline presented with a fascinating behind the scenes feel, Laika is a compelling experience.
4 ½ stars
Laika: A Staged Radio Play
Presented by Second Chance Theatre and The Blue Room Theatre
Writer, Director & Lighting Designer: Scott McArdle
Producer: Natalie Di Risio
Live Foley Artist: Andrew David
Designer: Sara Chirichilli
Projectionist: George Ashforth
Stage Manager: Georgia Smith
Dramaturg: Alexa Taylor
Performed by Daniel Buckle, St John Cowcher, Arielle Gray & Taryn Ryan
The Blue Room Theatre, Perth Cultural Centre
12 – 30 September 2017