A Warsaw Melody

Leonid Zorin Translation by Franklin R Reeve

Belka Productions

Arcola Theatre

From 28 March 2012 to 28 April 2012

Review by Howard Loxton

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It would be easy to call this play charming, and literally it is, for it captivates the audience, but there is an astringency about this two-hander that keeps it from being sickly sweet.

Probably the most popular play of one of Russia's leading playwrights it was written in 1967. Now approaching 90, Zorin, who as a lad received encouragement from the great Soviet writer Gorky, was one of the first Russian dramatists to writing critically of Stalinist repression after the dictator's death and central to the plot even of this love story is a new Soviet law introduced under Stalin.

It begins with the accidental meeting of two teenage students at a classical concert in 1946. She is a Polish girl training to be a singer at the Moscow conservatoire; he is studying wine-making. It is only a year after the end of the Second World War. Victor went straight from school into the army; Helya has memories of her father hiding Jews under the hay of their farm wagon. She is very conscious of her own femininity and has a romantic idea of courtship but, though a pair of slippers forms part of the story, he is no obvious Prince Charming, he has no experience of girls and is still struggling to grow up.

Emily Tucker is captivatingly vivacious Helya, with a charming accent, always alert, never still; she paces around in conversation, even when on a street corner. It's not naturalistic but it fits her character and shares her with all three sides of the audience. Oliver King's Victor bemusedly wants to please her; he is not used to leading and making decisions. If you didn't like them you might think her a bullying romantic and him an ineffectual wimp but they are young and so obviously in love that it seems a perfect pairing. You can't help but like them.

Oleg Mirochnikov's spirited production has the two actors doing their own scene changes, moving furniture and manipulating Agnes Treplin's windowed panelled set, in the semi-darkness of Howard Hudson's atmospheric lighting. It makes the whole play so seamlessly belong to the actors and enhances the audience's bond with them, already strong from recognition of the minutiae of a developing romance.

Happiness is cruelly interrupted and the second act takes us forward, first ten years to a meeting in Warsaw, Helya a famous singer, Victor successful too, both married to others. Then it jumps another ten years to another encounter in Moscow. Zorin packs so much into quite brief encounters and finally in a non-verbal coda—I don't know whether it is in the script or the director and his choreographer Glen Snowdon's invention—there is an outpouring of frustrations, hopes and romantic memories that is quite stunning.