A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

Marina Lewycka

Hull Truck Theatre Company

Hull Truck Theatre

From 26 September 2017 to 14 October 2017

Review by Richard Vergette

Given the success of Marina Lewycka’s 2005 novel, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, it is perhaps surprising that it’s taken 12 years for it to reach the stage. Notwithstanding, the reception at the first performance of this adaptation by Tanika Gupta at Hull Truck Theatre on Tuesday evening, suggested that it could become equally popular as a play.

Nikolai, an 84-year-old widower (Geoffrey Beevers) is living his twilight years in Peterborough having fled his native Ukraine at the end of World War 2. Through a disastrous combination of loneliness and lust, he marries the beautiful Valentina (an impressive professional debut by Ana Marija Spasojevic), also Ukrainian, some five decades his junior and desperate to escape the economic privations of her country of birth—along with her 16-year-old son, Stanislav (Jack Fielding).

Nikolai’s horrified daughters (Ruth Lass and Hilary Jones) heal their personal rift to join forces to try to rid their father of his new wife—especially when she begins to turn violent. The story, however, is far more than just a rumination on the nature of ancient folly and nubile opportunism; it is about characters all of whom have a sense of dislocation—from their past, from their roots and from each other.

Patrick Connellan’s design with its numerous shabby suitcases—from which characters emerge and behind which they hide—underpins this theme perfectly. In the novel, the story is told from the viewpoint of the younger daughter, Nadezdha; in the stage version, Gupta has Nikolai’s first wife, Ludmilla (Polly Frame), as narrator—not so much as a ghostly presence but as a link to the past. We see hers and Nikolai’s courtship, marriage and early family life, shaped by the Stalin imposed famine of the '30s followed by the horrors of the Nazi internment camps.

Mark Babych skilfully directs the fluctuating moods of the piece so that past and present are fused into the experience of the characters as they try to find definition and make sense of their lives. He has created a selfless and generous ensemble who tell the tale with imagination, flair and energy.

In such an ensemble piece, it is perhaps invidious to give special mentions, but the performance of Geoffrey Beevers is especially wonderful. As the old man, he is at turns vain, foolish, proud, dignified, pathetic and ultimately touching as he completes his poetic history of tractors: symbols of an industrial era of strife and survival. His impotent rage is Lear-like when rejecting his daughters, but unlike the King, his gleeful greeting of the recently widowed Matron of his Care Home makes us feel that maybe he hasn’t learnt his lesson.

It’s a tremendous performance in a hugely entertaining, engaging and strong production.