Review: A Warsaw Melody @ Arcola Theatre

Emily Tucker and Oliver King. Photo by Sophia Stocco.

Do you wish to see more Russian plays outside the usual Chekhov fare that London theatres typically dish out? Do you want to witness how a production imaginatively sustains a two hour play with only two characters? Do you want to be seduced by one of the most enticing stage performances in London right now? Even if it is only one ‘yes’ to these questions, then you must head out to Arcola Theatre to enjoy this charming play which is having its first ever staging in the UK.

Set just after the 2nd World War in both the old Soviet Union and Poland, we follow the relationship between the two characters, Helya and Victor, over a course of two decades. They meet at a Moscow music conservatory, a meeting that results in flirtations and courtship but their relationship is soon thwarted by Stalin’s rule forbidding Russians from marrying foreigners. They go their separate ways, only to meet 10 and 20 years later.

It’s been termed as a romantic drama in some of the marketing literature which I don’t think is wholly accurate. The play’s ending, which is hardly a rosy advertisement for the ‘love is forever’ brigade, jars with the marketing literature’s attempts to sell this play. The first half of the play is a heartwarming tale of two young people falling in love but the second half is markedly different and there is no way of knowing if there is a future together for both characters as they enter middle age. The play also marks the wider political context with its constant references to the brutality of the 2nd World War. I wish the programme had a timeline, dating some of the key battles, massacres and mass executions in both the old Soviet Bloc and Poland within the wider World War II framework. Unless you are a World War II historian, many of the nuanced references to this horrific period in the play will be missed by many, which will be a shame indeed.

A two hour play with only two characters may make some wonder if there will be enough variety to keep them engaged. But fear not for we get a fantastic supporting cast by way of Chopin’s music and lively scenes depicting a restaurant, concert hall, a dressing room and Moscow/Warsaw road junctions, thanks to Michael Umney’s inventive sound design. Agnes Treplin’s set design consisting of sliding doors and a few furniture pieces may seem austere at first but they are wonderfully versatile and they come to life when they blend in with the music, the sound effects and the characters. Given the scale and the resources available, this is probably the most imaginative production I have ever seen.

Emily Tucker who plays Polish singer Helya gives us a magnetic performance. Her compelling stage presence coupled with her Polish accent, her singing and her balletic movements ensure that all eyes are on her whenever she is on stage – which, thankfully, she is most of the time. She is a talented actress who I hope will go on to enjoy the kind of success she deserves. Oliver King gives gives a persuasive account of Victor and he is especially good in being able to convey the older Victor outworn by life, work and missed opportunities. That said, I am not sure if his posh British accent enhances his role in anyway.

There are a few elements that aren’t wholly convincing in the presentation of the play; the second half of the play lacks the momentum of the first half and the jump from being young lovers to grown-ups seems too rapid. But these misgivings can be easily overlooked in this commendable production.

Until 28 April 2012.
Written by Leonid Zorin.
Translated by Franklin D Reeve.
Directed by Oleg Mirochikov.
Performance time is 2 hours and 10 minutes including an interval.

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