In the depths of Baron’s Court Theatre, a delicate and lyrical play unfolds, transporting the audience back to the year 1958. The story revolves around the remarkable canine, Laika, and her fateful journey aboard the ill-fated Sputnik 2. As I watched the show, it was clear that the play aimed to make Laika more relatable and avoid making her appear overly animated, like a character from a children’s program. Ultraviolet Productions showcased tons of sensitivity and talent with this one!
Isabel McGrady, the lead actress, masterfully breathed life into Laika, blending the qualities of a dog and (what seemed to me) a neurodivergent child. At first, I found myself intently focused on deciphering the script writer’s intentions, as Laika emerged as a multidimensional personality.
Beyond being a dog, she delighted in jam sandwiches, indulged in enchanting tales of a Snow Child, and dreamed of the enigmatic worlds that lay beyond our own. The interaction between Laika and the Man (Ben Willows) possessed a distinctly parental quality, leading me to perceive the narrative as a dual story with two separate heroines until a pivotal moment in the performance.
The physicality of the show was striking, with McGrady seamlessly transitioning from running around to jumping on tables, all while enduring simulated electric shocks as part of her preparation for the space flight. Her portrayal exuded an infectious energy, maintaining the essence of childlike wonder without descending into clichéd caricature.
Despite the short 1-hour format, the play masterfully built anticipation, effectively establishing a genuine emotional investment in Laika’s fate. As the Sputnik 2 blasted off into space, though the outcome was known, a collective quiet hope pervaded the theatre, as each of us silently rooted for Laika’s survival and her dreamy return to Earth, safely landing in the ocean.
The narration artfully unravelled the harrowing truth of Laika’s final hours aboard Sputnik 2, evoking sadness and compassion for the mistreatment inflicted upon this innocent soul by the USSR (any dog lover’s heart was melted at that point). Contrary to the myths perpetuated by Russia, Laika’s existence endured for mere hours after launch due to a malfunctioning heat shield, succumbing to heat exhaustion.
The show was accompanied by a two-piece band (Owen Kennedy and Nico Wood-Olivan), skillfully manoeuvring an array of instruments to create a poignant soundscape that perfectly complemented the storytelling efforts. Rather than overpowering the production, the music tastefully underscored specific moments, enhancing the overall experience. In a small space like Barons Court, it’s easy to overdo it with sound or music, but here everything played along.
As someone who is generally reserved regarding any Russian context in arts nowadays, I was relieved to find that the narrative itself refrained from idealizing the Russian army or delving deeply into historical aspects, focusing instead on Laika’s personal journey. At the tiny auditorium, I was greeted by the sight of the resident Ukrainian flag, which provided a sense of reassurance and alleviated my concerns. Thanks to Baron’s Court Theatre team for that little highlight.
Ps. Please iron the Man’s shirt for next performances, please 😉
by Aliya Gilmore
Baron’s Court Theatre
Tuesday June 20th – Saturday June 24th