Polina Semyenova had ‘The Right Stuff’. Before the Space Race was truly well on its way, Polina was handpicked in postwar Moscow to join the elite engeineering corp who would put the first man-made satellite and cosmonaut into space. So who was Polina Semyenova? And how did she acquire the technical ‘know-how’ that would keep her on good stead for the future? Written and directed by Dan Dawes, Tales From Star City traces Polina’s life from the time Hitler came to power to the late-1960s, when the pressure to put the first man on the moon was at its height.
Christina Baston plays Polina, whose whole life has been swayed by the slings and arrows of war. On the move during her childhood, circumstances lead to the absence of her father and later her mother. Raised and educated on a ‘diet’ of Marx and Engels, she adopts socialism wholeheartedly. There is a side to her, however, that is of a poetic nature, that isn’t bound by dogma or ideology – a dormant, questioning side that makes its presence felt later in life.
Based in ‘Closed Military Townlet No. 1’, the headquarters of the Soviet Space Program, Polin’s life’s follows a regimented daily pattern that involves work, recreation and sleep to set times. While it could be construed as being constructive, within this environment Polina’s professional repuation thrives as she excels at the nascent discipline of long-distance telecommunications. ‘Overseeing’ the program is Volkov, a shadowy figure who like the ‘Smoking Man’ The X-Files keeps tabs on who knows ‘the truth’, as well has having a ‘vice’ of his own – liquorice.
While the highs and lows of the American Space Program in the 1960s are well-documented, the Soviet equivalent was more circumspect. As the ‘ears on the ground’, Polina gets to hear all manner of sensitive and distressing signals, especially those – animal and human – who have been sent into space before the re-entry techniques and technology have been perfected. As far as Volkov is concerned, these ‘failures’ didn’t happen as they won’t make the history books…
As the person ‘present’ to the final moments of so many in the space program, distress leads to numbness over time. However, a burgeoning relationship with cosmonaut Komarov reawakens these feelings, putting her in even more of an impossible position…
Baston gives a heart-felt performance as the communications prodigy who becomes the conscience of the Soviet space program. While youthful joy and enthusiasm are present in her early years, we see how ‘toeing the line’ and her own empathy are in conflict with each other. The latter half of the show sees the toll it’s taken over time and her resolution as a consequence. In conjunction with Baston’s performance, stylised animation permeates the show, giving a visual dimension to Polina’s emotional journey.
© Michael Davis 2018
Tales From Star City runs at the Tabard Theatre, London until 10th March.