Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Theatre review: Donkey Heart

The Old Red Lion has supplied the West End with a surprising amount of content in recent years, and their latest premiere sees the West End give back with a few big-name creatives going to the room above an Islington pub. The lighting is by recent Olivier nominee Peter Mumford, some of the cast have recently been in hit commercial shows, and the director is Nina Raine. The latter's involvement isn't that surprising though, as the playwright is her younger brother Moses Raine, and Donkey Heart touches on their family's Russian ancestry. The setting is a flat in modern-day Moscow where Ivan (Paul Wyett) and Zhenya (Wendy Nottingham) live with Ivan's father Alexander (Patrick Godfrey) and their children Sasha (Lisa Diveney,) Petya (James Musgrave) and Kolya (Albie Marber tonight, alternating with Pierre Atri.) Communism may be gone but the family live in what they describe as a collective hangover from it: They aren't (to the best of their knowledge) under constant surveillance, but the habit of keeping their thoughts and emotions to themselves is a hard one to break.

Communism has also left Alexander used to a full house, and they happily invite people to stay with them: Ivan's co-worker Natalia (Emily Bruni) has just lost her own flat, while Tom (Alex Large,) whom Sasha met while studying in the UK, is visiting her for a few weeks.

The Old Red Lion is a suitably poky space to present a huge amount of people all living on top of each other, and while Donkey Heart is primarily a simple family drama, there's a lot going on. Where an old man's reminiscences of hard times are often comic fodder, Moses Raine and Patrick Godfrey make Alexander's heartbroken memories of Communism the heart of the piece; and the feeling that life isn't actually that much better than the days of queueing for an egg is never far off. There's some great performances, with the women really tugging at the heartstrings: Diveney is excellent as Sasha, whose stubbornness about acknowledging her own feelings for Tom gives the play its title; Nottingham is bruising as Zhenya is crushed by her husband's incredible callousness about his family's feelings; and Bruni brings a quiet underlying loneliness to Natalia's comic attempts to flirt with the handsome British guest.

It's interesting that Nina Raine wrote Tribes, which featured a home in which different languages are spoken to different degrees (in that case English and BSL,) and her brother's play introduces Tom here as a non-Russian speaker, with the family's varying abilities to communicate with him in English having a similar symbolic purpose in the story; as well as Large giving good value as comic relief. Plus a biscuit to the Raines1 for including a scene where Tom inadvertently wears a T-shirt that offends the family, so it's crucial to the plot that he take it off.

With all that's going on, the relationship between Petya and his girlfriend Clara (Georgia Henshaw) feels a bit extraneous and underdeveloped, but there's no doubting this is overall one of the strongest shows on the fringe at the moment.

Donkey Heart by Moses Raine is booking until the 31st of May at the Old Red Lion Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.

1no, not one each - they're siblings, they have to fight over it. It's the law.

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