First Cosmonaut

Jun 9 2014 | By More

✭✭✭✭✩ Simple but not simplistic

Traverse Theatre Thurs 5 – Sat 7 June 2014

Charming, funny and with deceptive depth, First Cosmonaut tells the story of the first man in space entertainingly.

First Cosmonaut. Photo © Steve Rogers

First Cosmonaut. Photo © Steve Rogers

Sligo-based Blue Raincoat Theatre are better known for their adaptations of Flann O’Brien, but here present a new work by frequent collaborator Jocelyn Clarke detailing the life of Yuri Gagarin and his historic 1961 flight in Vostok 1.

The story is supposedly told by Smolensk Drama Theatre, complete with exaggerated Russian accents that remain fairly consistent throughout. This conceit of a touring company on a small budget is carried through in Jamie Vartan’s design. The staging consists of little more than an assortment of apparently simple props such as ladders and umbrellas that are put to excellent use, notably when constructing Gagarin’s Vostok rocket.

The whole production makes great use of the contrast between the homespun and the sophisticated. The narrative is not always chronological and is told by a constantly shifting parade of characters, but remains extremely easy to follow. Joe Hunt’s technical design includes a great deal of projection that always enhances the onstage action.

Poetry and profundity from apparently simple ingredients

The company’s command of mime-based movement is clear to see and is all the more effective for being sparingly used, highlighting parts of the story rather than distracting the audience from it. Niall Henry’s direction, like Barry McKinney’s subtle lighting design, is all the cleverer because it refuses to draw attention to its cleverness.

First Cosmonaut ensemble. Photo © Steve Rogers

First Cosmonaut ensemble. Photo © Steve Rogers

There is a real ensemble feel to the piece, with Ciaran McCauley, Bob Kelly and Frances Healy displaying verve and versatility in a variety of roles. Sandra O Malley is particularly impressive, being able to signal the transformation between characters with the smallest yet most convincing movements and truly inhabiting each role.

John Carty has a much more difficult task in portraying Gagarin, as this part is played relatively straight and he has to carry much of the story. He is never less than compelling, but Jocelyn Clarke’s script fails ultimately to give us enough of an insight into the man.

This may be partly due to some simplification of the story and the background, but what is left is more than serviceable, and should appeal to a wide age range – perhaps not the 5+ suggested, but certainly children not very much older could derive a great deal from it.

Not only is it all extremely enjoyable, but there are some thought-provoking moments. We are gently reminded that Gagarin was the first person to see our planet from space, and the perspective this gave him is used to make us reflect on our place in the universe and our own sense of proportion. This is often done indirectly and with great good humour. This once again displays the company’s ability to extract poetry and profundity from apparently simple ingredients – a skill which suffuses the whole production.

Running time 1 hrs 20 mins (no interval)
Traverse Theatre, 10 Cambridge Street EH1 2ED
Thursday 5 – Saturday 7 June 2014
Daily, 7.30 pm
Tickets from

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