This ambitious and unique piece of theatre played off with some quality writing by Aliya Gilmore and some moving acting, especially from Iz McGrady who played Laika. It was so different to anything I had seen before, especially in terms of student-written theatre, and the idea was so wonderfully executed, in a truly surprising and deeply hard-hitting way.
As soon as I made the connection between the name of the main character, Laika, and the first dog in space, I had a great sense of foreboding which increased as the play went on. The tension and sense of claustrophobia was excellently built, through the loud noises of the spacecraft, and the rising temperature, as the audience became more and more aware of the inevitability of the ending. The intensity of the show, and complete reliance on Iz McGrady and Ben Cartwright as the only two actors featured, meant that it worked well as a shorter, fifty-minute piece, and Gilmore managed to contain a lot of emotions and philosophical ponderings into a small space.
The original concept, of following the journey and experience of the first dog sent into space in 1957, was unusual but did not initially appeal to me. However, this show was completely different to what I had expected and soon won me over, and the almost completely anthropomorphised dog was genuinely effective and not at all embarrassing or accidentally comic, as is often the danger with actors attempting to play animals. Indeed, the characterisation of Laika was one of the highlights of the play, her child-like energy and hopefulness slowly giving way to panic and anger as the play progresses. McGrady managed to combine the excitable and playful nature of the dog, with a human, existential realisation of being powerless and trapped in the shuttle. She was also given a child-like imagination, constantly creating fairy-tale stories of the stars, and one of the most surprisingly effective moments was when she lip-synched to a Doris Day song on the radio and played an imaginary piano. This perfectly encapsulated her playful and endearing personality, while also highlighting the waste and the loss of future.
Ben Cartwright played beside McGrady, as the man who had found her and orchestrated her journey into space. He played the emotion and growing guilt of this part very well; however, I was left unconvinced whether this part was necessary to the play in the first place. He seemed primarily written in order to explain what was going on to the audience more than anything, and for me the focus could have remained more singularly on Laika. Despite this, Cartwright filled in the backstory and the ‘human’ perspective well, portraying the complex emotions effectively, and having tears in his eyes for a majority of the play.
At the end, the cast received a standing ovation, showing that it inspired more than the usual semi-enthusiastic reaction to student theatre. This was certainly well deserved, as Laika is an exceptional feat, and one which paid off with some truly moving and insightful moments.
Laika is part of DDF General Programme 1 and is being performed again on Friday the 7th and Saturday the 8th, at 7:30pm in Caedmon Hall.
By Isabel Carmichael-Davis