Little Eagles

Hampstead Theatre, London NW3.

Like many fiftysomethings, the playwright Rona Munro included, I acted out my childhood against the backdrop of the space race. Munro's Little Eagles, which premiered shortly after the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's orbit of the earth, explains why Russia took an early lead and why it then threw in the towel. The answer, in both cases, is Sergei Korolyov, "chief design­er" of the Soviet space programme. It was his vision to send satellites and then men into space. After Leonid Brezhnev forced him to cut corners, the programme never recovered; nor did his health. He died on an operating theatre and Russia's stellar ambitions died with him.

So, here was an excellent opportunity to dramatise the life of an overlooked genius. I was touched by Darrell D'Silva's portrayal of Korolyov. With his heavy build and silver hair, D'Silva looks like Ronnie Barker in Porridge, but his chief designer appears as a fully realised person: obsessive, difficult and, though a cynic about the Soviet system, willing to forgive its errors - including his own imprisonment - so long as his science is bankrolled.

The scenes in which he comes into contact with the brute personality of Nikita Khrush­chev (Brian Doherty) are electrifying. Did he cry when Stalin died, the Russian premier asks. "I was sad," replies Korolyov. "I wept like a child," counters Khrushchev. "He was our father. Now we're just children, running from wolves." But outside the lab, the power dips. His scenes with the wife who betrayed him and their sickly-sweet daughter are unconvincing.

Worse is the lack of emotional impact of Korolyov's backstory in the labour camps, which Munro deems crucial to understanding him. She makes three stabs at convincing us. In the first, a weak and brutalised Korolyov accepts medicine that could have gone to another inmate. The use of well-fed actors to portray the horrors of a labour camp has been tried before and here, as ever, it fails. The second is Munro's unwise decision to bring back the man whose injection Korolyov got as a ghost who, like Banquo, appears from time to time. Only her third device comes close to working: the promotion of the Gulag doctor (Noma Dumezweni) to the post of Korolyov's cardiologist. The two exist in a state of mutual quasi-blackmail.

The title, Little Eagles, suggests another design flaw in the work. "Little eagles" was Korolyov's pet name for his astronauts. But the play's increasing attention on their rivalries reduces the focus on the scientist's story without making the lads much more than lads.

Like the Soviet space programme, Little Eagles has been mounted on a budget. Cosmonauts bouncing around the stage on bungees are no answer to the difficulty of portraying space flight. Yet what the play suffers from most is not a lack of resources, but excess: too many scenes, too many locations, too much ground covered. For the next part of Munro's proposed space trilogy, someone at the Royal Shakespeare Company, which commissioned this play, needs to act the politburo member and show her the cuts that will make it fly. l

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.