From attic to space, what a race!

By Adilah Ismail, Pix by Sanka Vidanagama

It seemed rather dubious that the hodge-podge of clutter adorning the Punchi Theatre stage was expected to transport the audience through one of the most technologically advanced achievements of mankind. However, under actors Robin Hemmings and Oliver Millingham’s expert hands (and imaginative sound effects) a beach ball adequately passed muster as Sputnik 1, a precarious pile of cardboard boxes transformed into a rocket and the audience was plunged into the space race through the eyes of two young men exploring a cluttered attic.

Written by David Hastings and directed by Toby Hulse, the Oxford Playhouse production of ‘One Small Step’ relates the frenzied competition between the United States and Soviet Union in the exploration of outer space. From the launch of Sputnik 1 to Armstrong’s iconic landing on the moon the duo kept their audience enthralled simply through an amalgamation of sheer energy, brilliant characterization and a few, commonplace household objects.

Presented by the British Council in Colombo this week, the play was also first performed to their largest audience yet in Jaffna (the first international theatre production presented there by the British Council in six years). For the actors this was memorable. “It was intense,” says Robin. “The building we were in was a school hall which could seat about 1000 people and we had more than that.”

“We weren’t sure of how many people were going to come. We thought maybe, 100 or 200. But word started spreading and we heard that 1000 were coming. Robin and I were testing our voices and because it was a massive hall and because we had to speak slower (because of the echoing in the building), we actually added about 10 minutes to the show,” elaborated Oliver, “The number of people who turned out really was an indicator of how much desire and interest there is in theatre and also I think it’s one of the first times that people could actually come together just to be together on that scale,” he added.

The play is punctuated with ‘appearances’ by American president John F. Kennedy (with of course, excerpts from the historic ‘we choose to go the moon’ speech), television presenter Walter Cronkite and other well known figures, while the actors have the daunting task of portraying over 20 characters throughout the play. While the pair switched characters seamlessly as the play unfurled, Robin’s rapid portrayal of seven American astronauts was particularly entertaining. “It’s good fun,” smiles Robin, speaking about the transformation from one character to another during the course of the play, "when we first started rehearsing it was all a bit confusing but once you get going it becomes habit I suppose - but it’s still a mind-muddler.”

The actors explained that although the initial script dictated ‘Two actors on stage surrounded by junk’ that was as far as it went. “The initial point of direction was Sputnik being the beach ball (that was in the script) and from there, that sort of fed everything else and the devising process,” explained Robin, elaborating that director, Toby Hulse wanted to show the story instead of simply narrating it.

Despite 118 performances under Robin’s belt and 48 to Oliver’s credit, there was no sign of weariness or ennui.

For Oliver, it’s the journey of exploration and the portrayal of a plethora of characters which makes each performance fresh, while audience interaction is a key factor for him, explains Robin. “You have to connect with the audience so much - so much is direct address that the audience brings a lot to each show as well.

“Even if you do more than one show in the same place each audience is totally different, which is really fantastic. It’s lovely to see how people respond differently to different things.”

Like any form of discovery, the flip side of space travel is also evident in the play. A fissure occurs after the portrayal of the catastrophic R-16 failure in 1960 – one of the worst disasters in the history of the space race – where the fate of the play is momentarily suspended in the air.

“Two gentlemen from NASA came to see the show when we were in Singapore and they said a very simple phrase and that was ‘you’ve captured the achievement but you’ve also shown the price’,” said Oliver. “We hope that by slowing the play down and effectually stopping it, that it marks that we’re acknowledging the cost to achieve what they did. It’s a British look at the space race and we’re in no way trying to take sides – we’re just presenting it. It’s not in anyway meant to be mocking or derogatory or to make light of what was very serious.”

“There’s nothing better than having a huge laugh and then being able to have the audience completely silent. It is then that you know that you’re really doing your job and that the story is really coming across. And that silence is golden,” adds Robin.

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