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Humour lifts Russian folly

Old Red Lion - By MARTINA ANZINGER

There’s more than one spectre haunting Ivan Sidorovich Zhukov in this one-character play. Old Karl will be dancing in his grave. The revolution has come and gone, but contemporary playwright Oleg Bogaev’s take on what’s left makes for an unsettling snapshot of post-Soviet society. The Russian’s absurdist brand of humour has won him plaudits back home. The Sputnik Theatre production is the UK premiere of a new translation by Noah Birksted-Breen. Bogaev was still a twinkle in his mother’s eye when space cowboy Yuri Gagarin in beat the Yanks to the Cosmos, but the Soviet hero is one of the ghosts at this feast of darkly nihilistic humour. Of course, Lenin turns up too, and Trotsky.

So does Vivien Leigh and even Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. By an uncanny feat of good timing, there is also a real-life Martian, taking advantage of Earth’s proximity to the Red Planet. They are conjured up as Ivan Sidorovich ponders his predicament – a Great Patriotic War veteran, alone, penniless, depressed, trapped in a crummy bedsit, with nothing but bed bugs and a battered accordion for company.

Instead, he writes letters to the people on his spectral birthday party guest list – and they actually reply. This artifice could have been as wrist-slashingly gloomy as a Leonard Cohen ballad were it not for the outrageously surreal flashes of absurdist comic introspection and dialogue. The play is held together brilliantly by Kevin McMonagle as Ivan, who has the monumental task of convincing you of a mind on the edge of madness. Bogaev is holding up his mirror to post-Soviet society, but the play will also resonate with the tenants of Camden’s crumbling tower blocks who are still refusing to sell out to the honeyed bribes of New Labour’s housing utopia.

Lonely and deprived people of the world – unite.


25/08/2005, Camden New Journal