‘Laika’ reviewed by Gordon the Optom

by September 20, 2017

‘Laika: A Staged Radio Play’ is the latest ingenious and innovative play by the young WA playwright, Scott McArdle. This gripping tale is based on real historical events, and is being presented by the award-winning team, Second Chance Theatre.

The 75-minute performances can be seen each evening at 8.30 pm in the Blue Room Studio at 53 James Street in Northbridge, until 30th September. There is one matinée at 6.00 pm on Saturday 30th September.

A Q&A session will be hosted after the performance on Wednesday 20th September for ticketholders.

The producer, Natalie Di Risio, suggests that the storyline is more suitable for an audience over 15 yrs.

 

A brief history behind the story. In 1957, Soviet President Khrushchev wanted to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution, and so a three-year-old, stray dog called Laika, a cross between a husky and a terrier, became the first traveller to orbit the earth. It was only revealed 45 years later, that the poor mongrel died in the process. However, she did prove that humans could survive the take-off. In 2008, Russian officials unveiled a monument to Laika.

Rumours of secret Russian space failures were rife in the early 1960s, and the Americans mocked that a Russian wild goose would have a better chance of circling the world than a Russian astronaut. They were correct; ‘Gagarin’ is Russian for a ‘wild goose’.

 

It is the present day. The scene is the stage of a production theatre in a radio station, abandoned 40 years earlier. There are four microphone stands, all with the microphones of the day – the Sure 55 Classic – like ghosts lined up ready for the next performance.

Around the walls are several, cobweb covered antique, twin-bracket, wall lamps. An old leather sofa is against the dirty decaying wall. Along the rear wall is a sound effects table, with an amazing selection of ‘tools’. Great work by designer, Sara Nives Chirichilli.

As the story progresses, information captions, and extraordinary videos of the Russian space programme are projected onto the wall. Projectionist was George Ashforth.     

Stage Manager Georgia Smith also had the enormous task of operating several microphones and Scott McArdle’s complex lighting design. Flawless.

Composer, Robert Wood’s subtle background music was in the style of the Russian composers. Effective without being overpowering.

 

         Wandering around a broadcasting station, a bunch of actors has discovered a radio studio that has been out of action for years. The old equipment and its sound booth fascinate them. One of the group finds a pile of old scripts, with press cuttings and photos stapled to them. The friends gather around and start to read the script. They are hooked, and jokingly suggest that as it is pouring rain outside that they should put on the play, ‘here and now, for fun’.

         One man (Andrew David) claims the sound teching and sound effects. The tall slim actor (St John Cowcher) claims the part of a Russian hero, Yuri Gagarin, only to find that he was in his 50s, balding and only 157 cms.

       The two girls of the troupe select the parts of senior Russian military space engineers, Sergei Korolev (Arielle Gray) and officer, Natalya Volkov (Taryn Ryan). Vasily Michin (Daniel Buckle) is a nervous man, out of his depth in the space programme.

        If you want to know any more about this great story, please see it, I do not want to spoil the true but absurd tale here.

 

In the 1950s, lining up numerous sound effects on twin decks from a set of brittle 78s or LP discs would have been quite impractical. Likewise, recording the effects-discs onto an audio tape recorder would have meant a noticeable drop in sound quality, and so inevitably, radio plays had their sound effects produced ‘live’ during their transmission by a Foley Artist.

Andrew David is a brave man taking on this fast moving, complex Foley task – LIVE – but he does give the audience a quick look at how a radio play was produced 60 years ago, with no retakes. He is assisted by the cast for the more demanding effects. The rocket take-off was absolutely brilliant.

Before the show even begins, Andrew will have tried dozens of different techniques in his search for ‘the authentic sound’. Surprisingly, the genuine noise often sounds false.

I was a BBC TV studio engineer in 1962, almost the same era. This team were highly accurate.

I have known director, Scott McArdle, since he attended Murdoch in nappies. Even in his teens, he was writing and producing shows that left his audiences gasping. Here, Scott has been assisted with the dramaturg by talented Alexa Taylor. Alexa had a memorable one-person show at the Blue Room a couple of years ago.

Having thought of a unique concept, Scott had to find a capable cast, who were willing to take the risk on such a challenging show. This is a genre that has rarely been tried.

The cast had to perform on several levels; initially as a bunch of fun-loving friends, then actors playing around, as sound effects technicians and when the story progressed, to build up the tension and suspense. With numerous facts to share and little physical action, this play could have easily collapsed; instead, it radiated excitement and interest. Fabulous teamwork.

To quote another military saying, ‘He who dares wins’ and Scott deserves every scrap of his success.

Next week is the hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, and 60 years since Laika’s historic, but tragic trip.