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A CurtainUp London Review
The grandfather Alexander (Patrick Godfrey) has lived under the worst excesses of Stalinism and remembers when they had to share accommodation with people who weren't members of their family. "I ate the buttons from my coat," he says, harking back to days of hunger. The saucepan lids were chained and padlocked onto the pans to preserve the contents. No wonder he reacts strongly when English visitor Thomas (Alex Large) comes in wearing a red football shirt with the letters CCCP emblazoned on it.
Raine's Russian family are all of interest. Wendy Nottingham's anorexic and anxiously depressive mother, Zhenya watching her disintegrating marriage to secretive and hot tempered Ivan (Pail Wyett). Their children, Petya (James Musgrave) trying to avoid the draft after dropping out of college and caught in a stormy on-off teenage relationship with the flamboyant Clara (Georgia Henshaw); Sasha (Lisa Diveney) who imagines she's in love with a Frenchman she hasn't seen for five years and the youngest, Kolya (Pierre Atri/Albie Marber) who is still at school. Into this household comes Thomas from England with his cross cultural perspective and someone from Ivan's office, Natalia, the daughter of a family friend (Emily Bruni).
Nina Raine is directing and to clarify when they are speaking Russian, it is spoken with no accent but when speaking English to Thomas, they have heavy Russian accents. The performances are outstanding, especially Emily Bruni's conflicted lodger and Patrick Godfrey's wise grandfather but there isn't a weak role here.
Like Chekhov, there is lots to laugh at, especially at the rather earnest but ridiculous conversation Thomas and Sasha have as Thomas courts her, and the boisterous excesses of Clara and Petya's histrionics. Set in a crowded and dowdy sitting room which doubles as the visitor's bedroom, space and privacy are at a premium. Is the television turned up when taking a telephone call to hide the conversation from the KGB or for a reason nearer home?
Donkey Heart makes me want to see more written by the talented Raine family and will put The Old Red Lion on my list of fringe venues well worth a visit. How many generations will it take for suspicion to be lifted, for spying to cease to be the norm in the pressure cooker of Russian society, whether for political reasons or something else? Will contentment ever replace dissatisfaction with Russian opportunity?
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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