A fascinating play about the elusive nature of happiness is being revived by gifted young playwright Penelope Skinner exactly 45 years after Ian McKellen and Judi Dench starred in the legendary British version of 1967. True to form, Skinner’s version seeks out the comedy in tragic situations and is brimming with sexual tension.
Alex Sims’ fast paced production gives Matt Bennett a chance to shine as the complicated, forceful Marat who finds a fellow orphan, Lika, (Joanna Vanderham) living in his parents’ empty apartment during the siege of Leningrad 1942. Together they rescue Leonidik who completes the triangle.
With the city surrounded by German forces, starvation is the common enemy and the trio’s friendship is based on survival. Mementos, pets and even relatives have been sacrificed to stay alive. To justify their future existence, built on a sea of corpses, they make a promise. Like the Russian author Aleksei Arbuzov, a young orphan who found salvation in theatre, the three teenagers vow to build something out of the rubble.
But once the war is over they become victims of a different kind of struggle. ‘Pretending to believe something is almost as good as believing it’ says idealistic Marat, whose words come back to haunt him. Barrett achieves exactly the right combination of bluster and inner doubt while Vanderham’s transformation from exuberant child prodigy to disappointed housewife is perfectly conveyed through through her initial vitality followed by a restrained manner which hides her suffering.
Typical of Arbuzov, the play deals with personal redemption wrought in a cold Soviet climate but Penelope Skinner brings out the humour that can lighten the darkest circumstances. Ironically, when all are well and prospering, there is less to laugh about. It is a poignant reminder that though in tough times happiness seems relatively easy goal, in more prosperous times it becomes an elusive creature.
Sims directs with energy and focus, eliciting acting that is both exuberant and delicate. In a play of two halves, war and post war, Mike Britton’s contrasting sets perfectly illustrate the contradiction between outward prosperity and inner richness. In the first half the vibrant atmosphere is set in a half ruined building where everything has been burnt save the photo of Stalin ‘our great leader’. By contrast a sadness prevails amongst the rich bright colours of the same apartment, post-war.
Importantly, Skinner’s version is tense and moving. The love triangle is a well-worn theme but she imbues it with poignance and wit. As a drama it’s emotionally fascinating as well as historically informative, and confirms her as a young playwright with a promising future.