A Russian in the Woods
RSC at the Barbican Pit
Peter Whelan's new play is set in territory that will be familiar to those who have read the novels of Ian McEwan and, in particular, The Innocent.
The play tells the apparently partly autobiographical story of a young man, Pat Harford, who has been conscripted into the Army Education Corps at the age of 19 as a sergeant. He is instantly packed off to Berlin in 1950 and comes of age as this cold war comedy unravels.
Anthony Flanagan as Harford captures all of the uncertainty of a nineteen-year-old and seems to be based on the playwright. He catches the mix of soldierly bravado and sexual innocence perfectly. His performance and that of Anna Madeley as the object of his devotions are both extremely accomplished. You can feel the joys and anguishes of a young couple, one of whom has seen too little of life and one far too much.
The first half of the play shows the blossoming of their love amidst the comedies played out by British soldiers in cold-war Berlin. In particular, Louis Hilyer as Fraser Cullen, the suave sophisticate of the Kinema Corps who attempts to bring the couple together, is very funny but also manages to add pathos to the part.
The first half of the play is rather like a slow movement in a symphony which precedes the fireworks in the finale. After the interval, everything starts to go wrong for our young hero. A broken assignation with the German girl, Ilse, leads him to bring an American soldier back to base.
In no time at all, he is facing a court martial as an assortment of officers and military police haul him over the coals. This gives Whelan a chance to give us a view of the thoughts going through a young left-wing mind just after the war. Unfortunately, Harford's idealism is somewhat less convincing than his passion.
This play of two parts is something of a curate's egg. There is some tremendous acting and nice writing before the interval and then, all of a sudden, there is the switch to an interrogation scene that is not very different from hundreds seen on television and film.
At the same time, Whelan seems keen to expand on some political and philosophical views all of which come out in something of a rush as our innocent becomes a man and then unwillingly allows himself to be saved from a fate that could have destroyed his life.
This is almost a very good play and perhaps with some editing and a little rewriting could have been much more powerful.
A Russian in the Woods continues in repertory until 13th April.
This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher