This week, the British Council in Egypt hosted Oxford Playhouse’s performance “One Small Step at El-Sawy Culture Wheel. The play tour is part of Performance Platforms, a regional British Council project which explores performing arts to develop cultural understanding, trust and dialogue between artists and audiences in the region and the UK.
Last year, the program sponsored a tour of “Damascus, a collaborative performance exploring interactions between Arabs and Brits in Syria.
Unlike “Damascus, “One Small Step has nothing to do with Anglo-Arab relations. It attempts to dramatize the early stages of the space race between the Soviets and the Americans, from Sputnik, the first capsule to leave earth in 1957, to Apollo 11’s landing on the moon in 1969.
David Hastings, the playwright of “One Small Step was attracted to this topic for its scale, spectacle and drama. “There are many artistic portrayals of the Space Race because people recognize it as the greatest scientific achievement in human history, he said.
Hastings believes that subconsciously, humans realize that the long term survival of our species is dependent on leaving earth in search of more resources to cater to the increasing number of earthlings who are obliviously exhausting the resources of the planet.
The play does not engage with any of these ideas. Rather, it chronicles the 12 years between the Russian Sputnik and the American Apollo 11.
Employing plenty of everyday objects, the two well-trained actors Robin Hemmings and Oliver Millingham impersonate the major players in the space race. With skill, humor and a great tonal variety, they present dozens of characters starting with the dog Laika, the first living being to orbit earth, to Russian and American astronauts and scientists, even presidents.
Lending a new meaning to the phrase “Theater of Objects director Toby Hulse fills the stage with props. Next to the few pieces of furniture – small table, desk, and set of drawers – there are piles of cardboard boxes, old suitcases, empty water bottles and drums, pillows, plastic baskets, an old gramophone, hundreds of nick-knacks and “stuff creating the feel of a deserted attic.
From this large assortment, the creators of the show are able to conjure up famous space capsules from buckets, lamps and cardboard boxes.
Yet the charm of creating spacecrafts from objects around the room does not sustain the performance visually for long. The magic wears off quickly under the weight of the many missing details regarding the function of the capsule.
This science class-like performance has no drama to speak of. The simple tension of the early phases of the space race between the Russians and the Americans, staged through the changed lighting and the pillows-cum-hats for the Russians, dissolves quickly following the catastrophic crash of a Russian capsule at Baikonur Cosmodrome which kills over 120 scientists, engineers and technicians. This blow to the Russian efforts and personnel cleared the way to Americans, who up till that point were second in the race. Soon after, they succeeded in winning the subsequent one-sided “race .
The performance loses its dramatic backbone soon after, weighed down by a number of procedural attempts of rocket launches and failures administered by NASA to put man in space.
The play charts a number of significant incidents, but does not engage with the complexities of the space race. The disputed moon landing and moon walk is staged as a historic fact and humorously enacted through climbing down a chest of drawers with a bucket on the head of the performer and a cardboard box on his back. But it does not attempt to explore the different theories about the physical impossibility of a moon landing.
But complexity, scientific debate or even dramatic finesse is not what director Toby Hulse set out to accomplish. Hulse specializes in work for family audiences and in education contexts, and this production fits perfectly in that genre. “One Small Step is more exciting than any science class about space, and more fun than reading a book about the subject.
Had this performance reached its intended audiences (children and young adults), it would have been met with a much warmer reception. This “family drama needed more families, school children and teachers to watch as a morning attraction. Marketing it to the general public, though, misses the mark.
Repeating John F. Kennedy’s phrase “We choose to go to the moon not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard seems to be the underlying message of this performance, emphasizing how difficult it is to reach the moon especially when there is not enough drama to launch the show into orbit.