Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court, London SW1
Opened 8 March, 2004

Certain pairings just don't go well together: suede shoes and a tuxedo, for instance, or Ian Paisley and patient listening. Here's another: contemporary dirty-realist drama and the archetypal Russian national character.

Actually, in some ways the problem is that these last two mesh with each other all too well. The despair, the thwarted romanticism, the maudlin booziness can be blended to masterly effect in a Chekhovian drawing-room. But locate the same personality traits in a semi-derelict low-rise block next to a defunct cemetery on the edge of an economically depressed town, manifest them in a knot of young adults who have got together to see one of their number off on his military service (he wants to go to Chechnya: it pays better), and you know you're not in laugh-a-minute territory. A laugh a geologic era would be nearer the mark.

Ladybird is Vassily Sigarev's third play at the Royal Court, and I'm not entirely sure why. It's an accomplished snapshot of relentless grimness, but what for? We can watch Dima and Slavik steal grave-markers to get money for cigs, drink and drugs; watch petty crime-lord Arkasha lie his way into the sexual services of dim, lippy Lera, who's trying to get the money together to sink into a "You have won a major prize!" mailshot scam; watch Lera's cousin Yul'ka explode from detached silence into a torrent of tyrannical vanity as she orders Dima to abase himself before her self-proclaimed beauty; watch a couple of incidental characters die, one violently, the other all but unnoticed. So what? It's grim, yes. You should know that by now; you're Russian, after all. Deal with it.

Lizzie Clachan's design is magnificently squalid: we even enter the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs through a passageway lined with battered mailboxes, past an open door that affords us a glimpse into a neighbouring apartment. But however competent Ramin Gray's production, it can't fill the void at the heart of the piece. Sigarev even forgets about one of the characters halfway through the 90-minute play, leaving Gray to concoct his disappearance into a pile of detritus. Do we take it literally, or is he falling into the grave to emphasise that they're all, as Dima says with no great originality, the living dead? Who cares?

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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