Little Eagles

Tue 11th – Sat 15th February 2014

reviews

Ilana Walder-Biesanz

at 23:58 on 11th Feb 2014

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“What does that mean?” is the final line of Little Eagles, and it’s also the question the audience walks out asking. This production by the CUADC is brilliantly acted and beautifully staged, but the long and discursive script contains many speeches and scenes that seem to lack purpose.

The play opens with a pathos-heavy scene set in the Gulag, where we meet our then-dying hero Sergei Pavlovich (Robbie Aird) and the doctor (Em Miles) who saves him. Despite a few false notes that were struck in the presentation of such an impossibly difficult situation, I found the opening moving. The similarly grim scenes that followed seemed to presage a dark evening, but the script finds moments of comedic relief as well, particularly in the middle portion of the play, which recounts the selection, training, and first mission of the “little eagles” themselves. This was the highlight of the show, made thrilling by the irrepressible energy and cheer of Gabe Cagan as first cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.

Little Eagles has a huge ensemble—over twenty actors—all of whom played their roles very well. Robbie Aird ably carried much of the show’s weight as the obsessed and haunted Sergei Pavlovich in a performance that showed impressive dramatic range. Em Miles was more subdued but nonetheless compelling as his doctor. Lili Thomas also deserves special mention for a fascinating portrayal of Xenia that left me wishing that the play followed her character as well as her husband’s.

Technically, this show was hugely ambitious but successful. There were some inevitable first-night mishaps, but the important bits—the two-story rocket, sky full of stars, launched satellite, and flying cosmonaut—all worked. Occasionally, the tech got in the way of the action, particularly during the first cosmonaut launch when the dark made it unclear what was happening both with the launch and with Sergei, but on the whole it supported the story well. The transitions between the many different scenes were also impressively quick, facilitated by excellent use of the theatre’s flies.

This show has a major flaw, though: its script. While many of the scenes presented are fascinating, some of them (like the doctor’s second scene in the Gulag) have no direct relation to the plot and only add to the play’s unwieldy length. Even within the more focused scenes, characters launch into monologues full of flowery prose but devoid of motivation. I sometimes got the sense that the characters were speaking for the audience’s benefit rather than each other’s. And the plot itself simultaneously tries to follow too many threads and too few—partially following the lives of Yuri and Natasha, but then dropping them as soon as Sergei has died and the doctor has moved on. Director Nicholas Hulbert would have done well to liberally cut the play for his production.

But given the script as it is, it is hard to imagine a better staging. You should definitely head to the ADC Theatre this week to see Little Eagles, especially if you haven’t seen it before. Buy a drink and some ice cream and get comfortable, because you’re committing to a very long evening. This show won’t keep you on the edge of your seat for its entire three-hour running time, but it will provide you with both heart-wrenching and side-splitting moments that are well worth experiencing.

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Christy Edwall

at 09:12 on 12th Feb 2014

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'Little Eagles' begins with two women at a desk smoking silently. The curtain behind them rises and a moustached man in a Soviet uniform stands at attention against a background of smoke and delivers an exhortation to an invisible but ubiquitous Russian People, which reminds the real, paying audience of the moral terrain they find themselves in. In the midst of the speech, the speaker’s moustache half-detaches itself. The audience is in agony: how will the play go on when the moustache is peeling? The speaker removes the moustache in one slick motion as though uncovering a hidden identity, and continues without a flinch. Scene change.

An adaptable cast is a real strength. Still, 'Little Eagles' has several problems, but I suspect most of them can be laid at the playwright’s and not the actors’ doorstep. It’s a long play at nearly three hours and feels like it. Scenes occasionally drag immeasurably with much agony, dry heaving, shivering, and weeping. (This is understandable in Soviet Russia, but feels as agonising to the audience.) I lost count of how many times characters addressed each other with glowing imperatives to look at the sky or the stars, or contemplate the night or the prospect, in metaphors of wheat.

Part of the play’s problem is the generic challenge bound up with plays which take biographical subjects with great rooted sincerity: where the subject demands a fraught moral set-up from the first over-weighty scene. And so Sergei Pavlovich Korolyov (Robbie Aird), who is found dying in a gulag before he becomes the one-man-show behind the Russian space programme, suffers the haranguing legacies of the dead.

The dead are frequently mentioned as telling on the survivor’s conscience: this is all in keeping with the gravity of the subject, and the suffering of the period. But this is heavy material to expect undergraduate actors to support, and there was the occasional sense of trying to invoke – but failing – profound historical feeling. The Doctor (Em Miles) who saves Korolyov crops up throughout 'Little Eagles' as Korolyov’s perpetual (albeit reluctant) embodied conscience, but becomes associated with the above mentioned agony, dry heaving, shivering, and weeping – she inaugurates dragging moral exhaustion.

Despite this heaviness, it was a slick and shiny production; the production team did indeed – as I heard it said behind me during the interval – make great use of the stage. From spurts of powdered snow, to an aerially suspended model Sputnik, a roll-out two-computer control desk, a rippling sheet of stars, and a dangling cosmonaut (greeted with a ripple of surprised laughter due to his sudden appearance), the design team was willing to make an attractive and comprehensive use of their space.

The cast was a solid one, but several members in the ensemble seemed ill at ease with their bodies on stage, and their derisive laughter risked sounding cranked out and forced. Nevertheless, three central performances stood out.

First, Saul Boyer, who gave an acclaimed performance as Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron in Michaelmas’ production of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, was entertaining as a swaggering Khruschev. Charismatic, foul-mouthed, blustering, and always ready for a round – perhaps this is what my Russian friends mean when they dismiss Khruschev as a peasant – Boyer made a salt-and-pepper haired Khruschev a likeably manipulative force. At his side, James Hancock-Evans’ Brezhnev was a perfect foil for Boyer as a mechanically malevolent gremlin.

Second, Gabriel Cagan’s performance as First Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was a joy to watch. Ebullient Cagan was perfectly cast as the cosmonaut who never stopped smiling. (Google the image of the original Gagarin on a postcard). Cagan was broad, gregarious and twinkling, but there was not much in the script for him to truly chew on, nor to test his range.

Lastly, Korolyov, the Chief Designer of the Soviet Space initiative, was played well - and occasionally with great feeling - by Aird. Aird’s greatest success, however, was his believable maturity; he was the only actor who carried off his character’s age. Korolyov’s final monologue on his trying winter journey from the gulag to Moscow carried with it the real notes of storytelling, and for a second, the playhouse was eclipsed.

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