Laika

Bryony Hannah and Avye Leventis

Unicorn Theatre (Clore Theatre)

From 24 October 2017 to 12 November 2017

Review by Howard Loxton

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In 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin made history as the first man in space but four years earlier, when the Soviets launched Sputnik II on 3 November, it too had a passenger, a vital precursor.

She was called Laika and was the first living being out there, orbiting around earth. Laika was a dog, a stray found on the streets of Moscow. There had been two others who made brief trips and the Americans had sent up mice, but Laika (her name means barker) is the one in the history books.

But this play isn’t just about Laika. It is set in the future when there’s preparation for a mission to Mars, a manned mission. One of the potential astronauts is Val, whose son is as excited about the idea as she is. Of course, son Sami wants to be an astronaut too when he grows up.

But just as the lights have gone done, before we can meet Val and Sami, there’s an interruption, flashing of torches. The theatre’s ushers come charging in. There’s a dog that has got into the theatre. Was that it that went dashing past? It has lifted its leg—is it going to …? No it’s gone.

Hiatus over, the play can now start; but of course we have already seen Laika, or her spirit. It is actress Josie Daxter: not in a dog outfit, just a long fluffy jumper, with bobbed hair. There’s no doubt she’s a dog though, well a bitch actually, you can hear her tail slapping her leg and there’s lots more to this characterization than a hand flapping, just listen to those doggy noises and look at the way that she shakes herself.

We’ll meet Laika properly soon but first here is Sami. He knows a lot about space and the stars and all that, there’s a telescope on the roof and he’s learned a lot from his mother, but he’s still just a kid, though the actor Nima Taleghani looks older and he has already picked up a bit of a Sarf London accent, but his behaviour takes the years off—he’s still into picture storybooks and mum brings him home a book about Laika.

Val (Anne Martine Freeman) is a young mum with a passionate enthusiasm for space but she is well aware of its dangers. Perhaps giving Sami Laika’s story is her way of telling him something.

The play now simultaneously tells Laika’s story in parallel with that of Val’s: their selection and training, right through to take off and their role in the future of space exploration. There are physical workouts, weightlessness familiarisation all leading up to a spectacular take-off but on another level this is also a preparation for parting.

Verity Quinn’s design provides a sky full of light-bulb stars and a scaffold-like setting that can be bedroom, or rooftop or launch pad. The floor is marked out in a grid; scribbled calculations projected all over it make things seem very scientific. Space toys and models stand in for the real thing and as Laika runs through Moscow lights track her route on a projected map. Breathing and heartbeats and the sparkle of star shine are reflected in Alma Kelliher’s sound design and the music composed by Adam Pleeth.

In this production, directed by writers Bryony Hannah and Avye Leventis and devised by the company, there is always something physical happening to hold young people’s attention.

The play follows a process but it is also a picture of the close relationship between mother and son, of female achievement and filial pride. But there is a cost: Laika was sent of into space and she died there. Val doesn’t come back either.

But I don’t think it is that sadness that young audiences will remember but the sheer dogginess of Josie Daxter’s Laika, a dogginess achieved through theatre not animatronics or image capture. When she has her fur cut off she just takes of her jersey to reveal her shorn body, she speaks with her eyes, you could swear that she showered you with water when she gets out of an imaginary bath.