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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
Black Milk
by Lizzie Loveridge

'Cause it's trendy to be a bitch there . . . Trendy to hate and look down on everyone. You look at them and feel bitter inside. They look at you and feel bitter inside. Everyone joins in . . . it's like we're doomed.
-- Poppet
Vassily Sigarev is a Russian playwright in his mid twenties and has already won the Evening Standard Charles Wintour Award for the Most Promising Playwright of 2002 for his play Plasticine staged at the Royal Court last year. Black Milk is a depressing picture of Russia post Perestroika, the crime and corruption resulting from the dismantling of the Soviet State. It is a tale of town mouse and country mouse where the townites are streetwise, foul-mouthed criminals who would mug their own grannies for a few kopecks and the country folk are kind, caring but gullible or drunk.

Stranded at a railway station in a small town in the provinces are Muscovites, wide boy, trader and conman, Lyovchick (Paul Ready) and his very pregnant girlfriend Poppet (Sarah Cattle). Lyovchick has been "giving away" toasters to the local population. The snag is that the delivery charge is four times the cost of the toaster. We are given an economic picture of the town by the Ticket Clerk (Suzan Sylvester), an incomer, who brews and sells black market vodka. Poppet goes into labour and is cared for by a local woman Auntie Pasha, (Di Botcher) while Lyovchick moves on to another town. After the birth of her child Poppet, now called by her proper name of Shura, undergoes a transformation and wants to stay in the small community on Lyovchick's return for her. Lyovchick resists and in a powerful final scene harangues and punches Poppet and threatens the baby until cowed, she agrees to return to Moscow.

The milk of the title is a smashed bottle of milk for the baby provided by Auntie Pasha, presumably a metaphor for the break up of society and community. The scene is set by a narrator (Gary Oliver), who holding a torch under his face in darkness, describes the station waiting room as if he were an honest estate agent. There is this sense of isolation, of being in the middle of nowhere in this dirty, unwelcoming room. Poppet blasts onto the scene with "What the fucking hell are we doing in this shit hole?" I liked the motley procession of the local residents each clutching their blue toaster as they line up to ask for a refund that they will not get from Lyovchick.

Although the performances are sound, Paul Ready seemed not to have completely mastered the brutality and cynicism of his character Lyovchick. Poppet undergoes a transformation, although this is very well acted by Sarah Cattle, it seems unlikely that she should go from chain smoking, four letter word spouting tart to sweet young mother in the space of ten days. There is fine support from Di Botcher as earth mother, the saintly Auntie Pasha, who refuses all payment and a rich cameo from Sheila Reid as Petrovna, a wily widow who is first to try to get back the money she paid for the toaster.

This play is unlikely to get sponsorship from the Russian Tourist Authority given the bleak and hopeless picture it gives of life in Russia today. Sigarev's characters use gutter speak, this is not the language of Chekhov, but his characters take something from the Russian tradition.

Black Milk
Written by Vassily Sigarev
Translation by Sasha Dugdale
Directed by Simon Usher

With: Sarah Cattle, Paul Ready, Suzan Sylvester, Gary Oliver, Di Botcher, Sheila Reid, Alan Williams
Designer: Delia Peel
Lighting Designer: Simon Bennison
Sound: Ian Dickinson
Running time: Two hours with one interval
Box Office: 020 7565 5000
Booking to 1st March 2003
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 7th February 2003 Performance at the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, Royal Court, Sloane Square, London SW1 (Tube Station: Sloane Square)
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