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Black Milk

Vassily Sigarev, translated by Sasha Dugdale
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs
(2003)

Plasticine, Vassily Sigarev's first play to be produced in the UK, in the same theatre won him the Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright. That was an exploration of an urban underclass. His second play to travel here, Black Milk, is a comedy that has already won the Eureka Award. It takes place in the very different setting of a run down waiting room of a rural railway station.

The underlying themes are still primarily related to the way that contemporary Russian society has been corrupted by drink and by the values of capitalism. The viewpoint is different, as contrasts are drawn between the sharp young wealthy of the city and the backward rural peasants whom they meet.

The young couple, Lyovchik and the heavily pregnant Poppet (played by Paul Ready and Sarah Cattle), have descended on this village to sell toasters that don't work, at four times the normal price. The villagers buy them as they would religious icons and regard them as status symbols.

When ten of them arrive to return the useless machines, they are mentally beaten down by the visitors and forced to accept their lot with little complaint, as they always have. The youngsters are used to living life at a different pace and happily insult and laugh at the locals.

There are some very funny moments. First the station mistress played by Suzan Sylvester talks of her new (poisonous) potato vodka distilling business. Then Gary Oliver's unreformed communist, Mishka, drunk on her product, goes mad with a shotgun.

The gunshots have a significant effect, as Poppet goes into labour and is billeted with an amateur midwife (Di Botcher) whose kindness and ability to bore go hand in hand. Poppet undergoes a religious transformation during the internment, becoming meek and mild - to the consternation of her returning husband.

After ten days of motherhood, this wild-living dealer, who has had a dozen abortions, finds God, wants to stay in the country and reopen the sawmill. Her husband is disbelieving and violently forces her to return.

Her conversion and internal battle do not last long and after reaching crisis point, she undergoes a cataclysmic experience and instantly reverts to type. This seemingly demonstrates the playwright's view that in 21st Century Russia, the old values can never win in a battle with the new.

The ending is opaque with black milk becoming white once more. The return of the city-dwellers to their home is likely to be for the best, not only for them but also for the villagers, who can also return to a normal, albeit deadly existence.

Sadly, the only conclusion that can be drawn from this black comedy is that Sigarev is equally pessimistic about the future for either city or country in Russia.

If you go to see Black Milk, be prepared. Beware the special effects in Simon Usher's production and Ian Dickinson's sound design, the shotgun is terrifying and the whole theatre shakes as express trains run past the station!

Black Milk plays until 1st March.

This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher