There’s always a risk attempting to present previously “unknown” stories as theatre. Especially when it takes time—the best part of a decade, in this case—for a show to reach the stage, there’s a risk those tales will have already spread through other means: documentaries, perhaps, or books. So any play must balance providing enough background details for the uninitiated in the audience with sufficient added value for those already knowledgeable about the subject.
The “unknown” stories Gallop aims to present here are about the “other side” in the space race between the USA and the USSR, whose respective rocketry programmes rose from the technological detritus of the German Third Reich.
All this, ideally, without the heavy thud of the “info dump”, in which a cast end up telling us more than they show. Unfortunately, Francis Gallop’s new play for the Edinburgh International Science Festival doesn’t quite get this balance right; the cast of four actors here are required more often to declaim their lines to the audience than each other as characters, meaning that the human aspects of three entwined stories here are somewhat lost in a confusing melée of conspiracy theories, old-school state secrecy and references to Russian fairy tales. Less a drama, more a succession of speeches.
The “unknown” stories Gallop aims to present here are about the “other side” in the space race between the USA and the USSR, whose respective rocketry programmes rose from the technological detritus of the German Third Reich. In particular, there’s the life of engineer and space pioneer Sergei Korolev, whose identity remained a state secret until after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Contrasting this are two young Italians, inspired by the launch of Sputnik 1 to create their own home-made radio tracking station and absolutely sure that they had detected several “lost cosmonauts” before Gagarin’s successful first orbit.
Director Kate Nelson makes much of Ali Maclaurin’s set—essentially just a couple of stools, two tables moved around on castors (to suggest locations), and a huge circular screen on which a succession of visuals are projected to contextualise the scenes. She also uses the venue herself; younger male cast-member David Rankine is often found looking down on the others from a long balcony that stretches the length of this former veterinary school dissection room. This successfully underscores the emotional distance often existing between the characters, specially those played by Annabel Logan, with whom Rankine is most often paired.
Rodney Matthew offers some real emotional value as Korolev; unfortunately, Gowan Calder is left with a succession of lightly sketched plot pushers; any impact she has is more down to the script’s deliberate repetitions than any individual characterisation. Which is arguably symbolic of the play as a whole; there’s definitely something of worth here, but it lacks sufficient emotional focus to build on a story that’s by no means as “unknown” as it once was.