A Family Affair

Alexander Ostrovsky, translated by Nick Dear
Arcola Theatre
(2006)

Publicity image

Alexander Ostrovsky was the most famous Russian playwright of the mid-nineteenth century but, in Britain at least, has almost disappeared. He did have a purple patch a few years back when The Forest played at the National almost simultaneously with The Storm at the Almeida. Since then nothing by this prolific writer has been seen, if one ignores performances of Janacek's opera, Katya Kabanova which was based on The Storm.

For this reason, the opening of Serdar Bilis' revival of his comedy-farce at the Arcola in Dalston attracted a large and distinguished audience. The director has already built a good reputation as an interpreter of classics having created a fascinating Eastern Tartuffe.

A Family Affair is a play about social climbing and corruption. It centres on a nouveau riche family who have not quite knocked off the rough edges of their former existence. Dad Samson Bolshov is played humorously by Jonathan Coyne as a bit of a barrow boy who, when he realises that the creditors will soon be knocking at the door, is tempted into arranging what would today be called an IVA (Individual Voluntary Arrangement).

The deal that he wants to complete will leave him paying 25 Kopeks in the Rouble or put another way, get rid of three-quarters of his debt. He is delighted at the idea of rooking the poor devils that have given him credit but like so many today, doesn't spot the potential problems.

His pretty red-headed daughter, Sally Leonard's Lipochka, and her mother Agrafena (Rosemary McHale) have a sole purpose in life, finding a suitable husband for the young lady. In this, they are aided by Jane Bertish's rather snooty Ustinya and the family bank balance.

Once these hares have been set in place by Ostrovsky, rather like a farce but without the speed, everything begins to unravel as the old man's financial shenanigans go horribly wrong and land him in jail. Then for complex but rather fraudulent reasons, his initially horrified daughter who had her heart set on a nobleman (any nobleman) is forced to marry a sleazy clerk, Lazar Elizarich, played by Philip Arditti.

The final scene sees Samson released from jail temporarily so that he can settle his affairs but finding, like King Lear, that nothing ever quite runs smoothly after you hand over control to the younger generation.

The exotic feel is greatly enhanced by musical duo Bow and Bellows and designer Naomi Wilkinson, who goes overboard with costumes within her artificial proscenium arch between the Arcola's pillars. Lipochka has one rose-embellished dress that looks good enough to eat and no expense has been spared to create an attractive impression.

Serdar Bilis has given this very Russian play the feel of an English Restoration Comedy, where a French farce might have been closer to the mark and while there are some funny moments, until the final quarter of the two and a half hours, the pacing is too sedate.

We must though be grateful to the Arcola for rescuing this play from obscurity and demonstrating that the financial problems faced by far too many today and for which TV remedies are constantly advertised are nothing new.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher