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Laika review at Unicorn Theatre, London – ‘pretty bleak’

Anna Martine Freeman and Nima Taleghani in Laika at Unicorn Theatre, London Anna Martine Freeman and Nima Taleghani in Laika at Unicorn Theatre, London

In 1957, Moscow street dog Laika was selected by the Soviet space programme as their canine guinea pig. Poor Laika had no choice in becoming the first living creature to orbit Earth and never enjoyed a hero’s return.

A hundred years on, young Sami’s mum Val has the most amazing job in the world as an astronaut preparing to lead the first human mission to Mars, a journey that will separate them for years, if not permanently.

Co-writers and directors Bryony Hannah and Avye Leventis bring these two emotionally charged stories together. The show features sprinklings of stardust, aided by Verity Quinn’s grid-like climbing frame set and a big box of visual tricks, but it’s also rather jumpy and pretty bleak for primary school-aged children (and adults too for that matter).

Anna Martine Freeman’s Val is both a warmly maternal presence and a strong female role model. Only at the end however is it suggested that the purpose of going to Mars is to establish a place where future generations can have a better life. Until then the idea of a child left to bring himself up feels quite distressing.

While Nima Taleghani plays Sami as a strange cross between a young child and a Cockney wide boy, Josie Daxter is a delight as Laika, a survivor of the streets with the saddest puppy eyes. Sadly, she becomes a supporting character in her own story, which in itself is more than compelling – a tearjerker packed with thorny moral questions.

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Emotionally charged, if bleak, theatre for young people that fails to reach the stars