x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Celestial buddies

The acclaimed two-man play One Small Step, which tells the story of the race to the moon, lands in Dubai this week.

Take the most technologically challenging achievement in the human race's history - sending man to the moon - and then try to tell that story using only two men and a few household objects. It doesn't sound promising. And yet One Small Step, a play produced by the Oxford Playhouse, which portrays the moon landings and the tense space race that preceded them, has managed to do exactly that to international acclaim. Brought to Dubai as part of the British Council 2009 Edinburgh Showcase, a selection of cutting-edge British theatre that is chosen biennially and is currently touring internationally, One Small Step is stopping at the Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre for a four-day run from Wednesday.

It has come from Sydney via Singapore, where it received rave reviews. "It's almost impossible not to be swept up by your own memories of a drama yet to be surpassed," sang The Sydney Morning Herald. From here, it is on to Lebanon, Tunisia, Palestine, India, Sri Lanka, Eastern Europe, the US and China. "I had a bit of a moment on Friday," says Robin Hemmings, the 23-year-old actor who has starred in the play since it opened at the Edinburgh Festival in 2008. "We were doing a gala performance in Singapore. Singapore is a very multicultural place and I was looking out at the audience, at all these different nationalities, races and religions, and I thought about how landing on the moon wasn't just an American achievement but a human achievement. So that is hopefully where this hugely diverse audience are going to get their enjoyment."

Hemmings has the unenviable task of portraying around 20 characters during the hour-long play, among them Neil Armstrong, President Eisenhower and Walter Cronkite. His co-star, Oliver Millingham, plays a further 20. Their tools include a couple of desk lamps, an action figure, a sink plunger, a Thermos and a sugar pot. Though the action often seems ad-libbed, it is, in fact, tightly scripted, says Hemmings, who was heavily involved in the play's evolution. "On the first day of rehearsal, we walked into an empty room with a 28-page script," he says. "Toby, the director, just said: 'Play,' and that's what we did." After some heavy editing, the script's page count was down to 15. "That gives you an idea of how much object theatre there is," he says. "The director decided that instead of telling the audience what was happening, we should show them, so we kept asking ourselves did the audience really need to know this or that to get the story, because we didn't want the facts to cloud the narrative."

The result is a production that is accessible to both children and adults. "People over 40 will probably gain the most from it," he says, "because they can remember the excitement of the event and have an emotional connection to it. But young people can also learn a lot from it. I knew they had landed on the moon but I didn't know about Gemini and Mercury until I'd read the script." The space race began in 1957, when Soviet scientists launched Sputnik 1, the first Earth-orbiting satellite. The US, alarmed by its Cold War enemy's advances, responded by creating Nasa and strengthening its technological garrison. Twelve years on and the competition had escalated to who could get an astronaut on the moon first. "It's the greatest adventure in history," says Hemmings. "It's the biggest scientific and technological achievement in terms of discovering a new place and they did it with less power than a laptop. The lunar module was no more powerful than a pocket calculator."

To portray such momentous events may have seemed a daunting task for the cast, but they needn't have worried. "There happened to be a space conference in Singapore the week before we performed there," says Hemmings, "and we had a couple of guys down from Nasa to watch the play. We were nervous beforehand because we didn't know how they were going to take it. But luckily they were the first to their feet, and prompted our first standing ovation. We met them afterwards and one of them said that the play captures both the achievement of space travel as well as the price - how it affects the people involved. That was a lovely thing to hear him say."

One Small Step will be at Ductac, Mall of the Emirates, from Wednesday until Sunday. For tickets visit www.boxofficeme.com or call 04 341 4777. @Email:kboucher@thenational.ae