Theatre: Burnt by the Sun
Richard Stockwell was blown away by this take on Stalinist Russia
by Richard Stockwell
Wednesday 16th May 2012, 12:21 BST
This play takes us to Stalinist Russia. Not the one with peasants and cabbage and misery, but to an enclave of opulence at the summer house of General Kotov and his wife’s family, complete with an ivy-clad veranda and a local festival band. The oldies, permitted to spend the summer in the retreat they no longer own, wistfully reminiscence of ‘before’. As the group sing, dance and frolic, Rozzi Nicholson-Lailey gives Olga the sincerest of smiles, even though her single ageing streak of grey hair did not match the quality of her acting. The daughter Nadia’s innocence is perfectly pitched, and the group manages to match the blissful ignorance of the ten year old.
But Mitia, an old love interest of Kotov’s wife Maroussia, and the oldies’ favourite, slowly injects some Stalin into the pastoral idyll. Anybody who repeats my mistake of taking the casual coolness of Will Attenborough’s arrival to be weak acting will be equally blown away by the strong development of his vacuous character – he most definitely was not cast for his piano ability alone. Higher praise he deserves, almost, but not quite, at the expense of a plot-spoiler. His clash with Saul Boyer’s General Kotov is well played on both sides, and does not need so many bars of the can-can before the interval to be consolidated. Kotov’s passionate loyalty to the party is unquestionably convincing, and quickly established through the awe of Jack Mosedale and Will Chappell’s bumbling soldiers. Boyer exudes soldierly virility, even if his military brilliance is slightly undermined by the felt red star on his cap, already curling at the edges. Maroussia’s dourness, emotionally volatile and mentally unstable character is perfectly suited to Charlotte Hamblin’s style. Evidently riled by Mitia’s arrival, she wavers and hesitates and flits between the two before powerfully asserting where her loyalties lie.
Director Hugh Wyld balances the high politics of Kotov vs. Mitia with some charming interaction over sandwiches and fireballs between Robin Morton’s simple lost driver and Laura Ayres’ middle-aged virgin housemaid. The script does the rest when the simple folk get in the way of the political, but Morton could have shown a little more panic when he realises this is happening.
MML Russianists have been up in arms over the blasé use of the Russian alphabet on the play’s advertising. I hope their ire can be overturned by high-class acting and direction, and an emotionally powerful script.