BAC (Battersea Arts Centre), London SW11
Opened 19 July, 2000

Aleksandr Gelman's play is essentially a two-hander: a Lothario who seems regularly to work a Moscow park begins to chat up a woman, who apparently responds warmly to his blandishments and sincere personal hard-luck stories... until she reveals that she has simply been giving him enough rope: he had, she declares, picked her up a year ago in that same park and fled after one night, and moreover he had used a different name at the time. There follow the best part of two hours of deceit and counter-deceit, as The Woman repeatedly catches The Man out in his lies and fictions, yet has to resort to lying and fiction herself in order to do so. It's a sort of romantic-drama offspring of Albee's Zoo Story and Gogol's Gamblers.

Francis Magee and Moya Brady are a pair of fine actors, but they seem to be in different plays. Magee keeps for the most part to low-key Irish smoothery, relying on his smile and his gab to extricate himself from the snares into which he is led. The diminutive Brady, meanwhile, bounds about like an athletic earth sprite, with a face every bit as supple as her body and seemingly as unable to keep still. Perhaps director Richard Beecham allowed such wild disparity between the two styles, in the mistaken belief that it merely suggests that The Man and The Woman differ in character and temperament. However, it's hard to imagine how two so completely alien body languages might communicate the merest prospect of meaningful togetherness, even for the one night which seems to be all The Man is looking for.

Nor does Gelman's script have enough power to overcome this obstacle. It's as well written as one would expect from a former head of the USSR's Theatre Union and subsequently a speechwriter for Boris Yeltsin, but it doesn't go anywhere. After the first couple of sustained volleys between the players, things follow a settled pattern such that the emotional pitch of the climax is pretty implausible. Possibly there is an element of social observation, even satire, in the play which a British audience without such a park culture fails to spot, but at root all it seems to say is that, when people are looking for other people to be with, they deceive each other and themselves. It says it eloquently but really rather politely, as if felt no urge to be at all compelling; this is unfortunate if, as a theatregoer, you happen to feel any sort of urge to be compelled.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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