One Small Step | Oxford PlayhousePhoto - Prudence Upton

Hot on the heels of The Arrival, notional “children’s theatre” is proving to be some of the most engaging work at this year’s Sydney Festival. Although obviously a far more modest show in scope, One Small Step is very much comparable in its clever use of diverse, alternative dramatic techniques to ingeniously bring a story to life through decidedly non-naturalistic means.

Simply put, One Small Step is the history of the Space Race, as told by two young men and a roomful of ostensibly improvised props drawn from simple household items like boxes, lamps, buckets, vinyl records, pillows, a (sparingly used) slide projector and one tiny Lego man. The inventive recontextualising of these everyday objects into representations of rockets, Russian fur hats, lunar modules and astronauts’ backpacks brings a vibrant, childlike sense of play, and evokes the kind of creative activity that generations who lived before YouTube and handheld gaming consoles enjoyed, conjuring their own worlds out of knick-knacks and pure imagination.

In fact, although it’s not clearly indicated in the show itself, it would appear that these young adult actors are actually portraying children at play, acting out this history as a kind of narrative game, role-play or possibly even an impromptu performance for an unspecified audience. If one were to be exceedingly picky perhaps the one criticism that could be levelled at this production is that it is similarly a little vague as to its target audience, as the level of detail and political concepts would likely go too far over the heads of very young children. Conversely, older pre-teens might be less receptive to the highly ebullient and playful delivery, having become more accustomed to “grown up” naturalism. In fact, for adults who are open to the youthful wonder and resourcefulness used in building this story out of such simple components, they may very well enjoy it even more than the kids they might be accompanying.

A surprising aspect for some, perhaps, is that for all its simplicity and youth-orientation, the show is actually rather educational, covering as it does the whole history of the Space Race up to the moon landing. For those who haven’t made a study of the topic, you may well find that you’ll learn something, as I did.

Praise for this show is inextricably bound up in lauding its two actors, Robin Hemmings and Oliver Millingham. They inject the production with boundless energy and such a palpable sense of enthusiasm that it is quite impossible not to find them endearing and get swept along by their storytelling. I couldn’t say whether or not every little detail of their imaginative use of the props is dictated by David Hastings’ script, but Hemmings and Millingham manage to make you believe that not only did they come up with these ideas themselves, but that they did so in the very same moment that you are witnessing it.

Portraying dozens of characters each through a host of different voices and mannerisms, they evoke quick, effective thumbnails of Cronkite, Kennedy, Nixon, Gagarin, Armstrong, Aldrin and many others. The action is fast and furious, changing the scene rapidly as they whip through the dozen or so years from the earliest endeavours through to culminating in the eponymous “one small step” onto the dusty surface of our moon.

The production has an impressive dramatic range, running from the satirical (their portrayal of American pomposity and “sinister” Soviets) to moments that have jokes just for the sake of a gag (one actor forcing the other to rapidly portray the entire dozen crewmembers of one project over and over in increasingly rapid succession) and a general sense of light mirth, all the way through to more weighty moments. They do not shy away from acknowledging that the Space Race had at times a high cost in human life, in particular reaching a sobering point when detailing a horrendous Russian disaster of which many may very well be unaware.

Perhaps even more impressive is their ability to transition from all their jovial antics to evoking very effectively the inspiring effect that the birth of space travel had on the common man, and summon up some quite powerful emotions in the viewer, even in those for whom the event occurred long before their time. Indeed, the awe of the actual moon landing is portrayed quite brilliantly, and with a surprising amount of gravity (no pun intended).

One Small Step is a frenetic, hilarious, moving and thoroughly entertaining show. It may not be quite right for very small children, but for everyone else it should be an absolute blast… off.

(Okay, that one was on purpose.)

Oxford Playhouse presents
One Small Step
by David Hastings

Directed by Toby Hulse

Venue: Downstairs Theatre, Seymour Centre | The University of Sydney, Cnr City Rd and Cleveland St, Chippendale
Dates/Times: January 13–15 at 7pm; January 16, 17 at 2pm & 5pm
Tickets: Adults $30, Children $15
Bookings: Seymour Theatre Centre 02 9351 7940 | Sydney Festival 1300 668 812 | Ticketmaster 1300 723 038

Venue: Lennox Theatre, Riverside Theatres cnr Church & Market Sts, Parramatta
Dates/Times: January 20–22 at 7pm; January 23, 24 at 2pm & 5pm
Tickets: Adults $30, Children $15
Bookings: Riverside Theatres 02 8839 3399 | Sydney Festival 1300 668 812 | Ticketmaster 1300 723 038


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