Vassily Sigarev, translated by Sasha Dugdale
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs

The appearance of a Vassily Sigarev play is becoming an annual event at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs. The first, Plasticine, gained him the Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright, Black Milk did almost as well.

The latest Sigarev, Ladybird, is a pitch black comedy that trawls the same Russian underclass as the first two. His characters have hit rock bottom, lost all sense morality and are ripe for exploitation by those a fraction above.

In Black Milk and now in this play, people are so desperate for any kind of way out that they will sell their souls or their friend's mother's grave-markers.

The play is set in an installation designed by Lizzie Clachan of Shunt and immediately familiar to habitués of Britart. This is the disgusting flat occupied by Daniel Mays' Dima and his drunken father, whom he far from affectionately calls Waster to his face.

All of these characters (and most in every Sigarev play) are desperately seeking escape. In Dima's case, while drink and drugs are worth a try, an army posting to Chechnya is welcomed with open arms. When you live in a block of flats known as Dead or Alive, overlooking a robbed graveyard, even violent death is inviting.

His farewell party brings together spaced out junkie Slavik (Burn Gorman), a greasy "fence" Arkasha (Jason Done) and two contrasting female cousins.

Christine Bottomley's Lera is mouthy and gullible. She is a "20 rouble slut" who needs cash to claim a non-existent prize that she has "won". She naively believes that $12,000 will be enough to buy every (admittedly modest) luxury that she can imagine.

Butter wouldn't melt in the mouth of posh bored Yulka, very well played by Anna Madeley, but she is the play's dark horse. Her mischief after a lengthy, sultry silence really sparks both action and dark humour.

The young have their problems and they are serious, but the old and the dead are indistinguishable in a place where apartments and graves have melted into each other.

Ramin Gray has drilled his cast well and, in particular, Daniel Mays and Anna Madeley give their characters a depth and intelligence that make their frustrations understandable on one level. This contrasts with the well-portrayed mindlessness of the other characters who suffer equally but are more reminiscent of helpless sheep.

Trips into the unforgettable world of Vassily Sigarev are always welcome and though it is grim, there is a ray of light. Even at their lowest, these people will always seek the symbolic Ladybird of hope.

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

"Ladybird" plays until 27th March

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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