Breaking the Silence

Stephen Poliakoff
Nottingham Playhouse
(2008)

Production photo by Robert Day

Poliakoff's play about a family in post-Revolution Russia travelling across the country in a dilapidated railway carriage hasn't been revived, it's believed, since it premiered at the Barbican Pit in 1984. That must mean one of two things: it's not as good as some of the writer's other works or it's incredibly difficult to stage. After seeing Esther Richardson's production at Nottingham Playhouse, it's evident that the latter is definitely the case.

Breaking the Silence poses a major problem because the action never leaves the railway carriage; we get to hear what's happening in the outside world but the Pesiakoff family's relationships and destiny are played out in the confines of a filthy, unappealing coach in which they're forced to make their home.

The Playhouse has solved the difficulty by bringing in designer Jamie Vartan who's worked on other productions at Nottingham including the Brian Clough comedy Old Big 'Ead in The Spirit of the Man. Vartan has come up with an amazing set which captures the decrepitude of the railway carriage, so alien to the Pesiakoffs who considered themselves part of the Russian aristocracy. There's also a filmic look at the start and during scene changes.

With atmospheric lighting from James Farncombe and intriguing sound from Stuart Briner, the technical excellence of Breaking the Silence could quite easily be the most prominent feature of the play, especially because of a visually striking ending. But the acting is first rate and is in no way overshadowed by the set.

Breaking the Silence traces how Nikolai, who's forced out of his comfortable home by the authorities to become a telephone examiner, pursues his dream of becoming the first person in the world to record sound on film. It's a role inspired by Poliakoff's grandfather who, like Nikolai, was an inventor and did a similar job.

Poliakoff also traces how living on a train affects the individual members of the Pesiakoff family, their relationships changing as drastically as their country which is ripped apart by civil war.

Philip Bretherton gives an absorbing performance as Nikolai, steadfast in his refusal to bow down to the authorities; passionate about his work; quick to lose his temper; and a proud father who, despite being a good family man, is prepared to risk everything to fulfil his dream.

Bretherton looks every inch an elegant aristocrat and there's just the hint of a mad professor in his portrayal which fits the role perfectly.

There's excellent support from Diana Kent as Nikolai's loyal wife Eugenia, who covers up for him by fabricating records which the authorities demand of him; and Celia Meiras as the rebellious maid Polya who's an invaluable help to Nikolai's work.

Ilan Goodman almost steals the show as the Pesiakoffs' son Sasha, developing from a frightened, timid boy into a confident teenager whose close relationship with his father is tested as the youngster doesn't share his father's desire for non-conformism.

I didn't like Owen Aaronovitch's depiction of the party official who's Nikolai's boss - to me he came across as an East End petty crook rather than an intimidating Russian oppressor.

There are times when the pace flags noticeably, especially in the scenes featuring the two women. This is hardly surprising in a play which lasts two-and-a-half hours and is set in only one location.

But overall it's an admirable presentation of a rarely performed work which has become one of the impressive hallmarks of Nottingham Playhouse.

"Breaking the Silence" runs until Saturday, May 31st

Reviewer: Steve Orme