With the opening of the play, I found myself transported to a freezing Russian Winter, and introduced to Sergei Korolyov long before, as I was later to discover, he became the USSR’s leading rocket engineer. Affecting from the start, Little Eagles brought with it an immediate intensity to its depiction of Soviet Russia, with the first five minutes seeing a shooting, a death and a doctor’s realisation of their lack of supplies.
The play quickly moved on, and speedy scene transitions helped keep the pace fast, which was important consider the length of the play (a three hour marathon). In fact, director Nicholas Hulbert should be applauded for breaking the fourth wall numerous times in order to engage the audience regularly, one occasion featuring SPUTNIK flying over our heads. Although not without technical hitches, the play flowed well and did a very good job at addressing the Cold War mentalities of the era. The space race, which the play is based around, despite being told from an exclusively Russian perspective, was handled powerfully and often visually too: as the larger-than-life Yuri Gagarin (Gabriel Cagan) bobbed in the air under zero gravity. Despite several issues with recordings being too loud or uncontrolled, lighting and set were both attractive and fitting for the atmosphere in each given scene.
Acting overall was a very high standard, with no weak links in casting. Sergei’s (Robbie Aird) steely determination and harrowing backstory were clear from the offset, while the Doctor’s (Em Miles) inner conflict after twenty years of watching suffering was wholly convincing and emotional. However, lighthearted relief was also interspersed throughout the scenes, mainly by Yuri’s (Gabriel Cagan) unwavering enthusiasm, as well as the ensemble’s clueless West Country villager scene, possibly reflecting the dialecticism within Russia itself. The play did very well to contrast the successes of the space race with the character’s struggles from the past and the suffering of the Russian people. This was perhaps most pronounced through Laura Batey’s haunting of Sergei throughout the play.
Well directed and impeccably cast, Little Eagles was as entertaining as it was educational, with just the right balance of humour and serious drama. Despite its length and occasional hiccups, the piece was involving from start to finish and is well worth a watch in its endeavour to shoot for the stars.