Hampstead Theatre, London NW3
Opened 30 November, 2004

Sometimes, when I'm not sure quite what to make of a show, I take a sounding by eavesdropping on other audience members as we're filing out. On this occasion, the two ladies behind me pronounced as follows: "That was quite unusual, wasn't it, the whole thing?" "It was interesting, though." What a relief: nobody else seemed to be much better off than me.

Nilo Cruz's 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning play is set in a small family-run cigar factory among the Cuban émigré community in 1920s Florida. Apparently the workers (not the management) in such factories routinely employed lectores to keep their minds occupied during the repetitive work by reading to them from newspapers, novels, or even lecturing them on social and political matters. But when Juan Julian takes up his post, he chooses Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. Unsurprisingly, the passions of the book filter off the page into the family's lives: high emotions, adultery and fatality ensue.

The social history element of Cruz's play will be surprising to a British audience: unlike their arch-conservative descendants today, the Cuban-Floridians of this era were a radical lot. At its best, too, the passionate side of his writing can attain a hothouse imagery reminiscent of Lorca: such a volume of feeling in such an enclosed, airless psychological environment. However, it can also seem as if, having introduced the Tolstoy bacillus, he's simply letting it run its natural course through these characters. At times it's less like a new work inspired by the novel than like an extended metaphor on it.

Director Indhu Rubasingham catches the moods and moments excellently, although with such a diverse cast playing such an ethnically homogeneous batch of characters, she might have done better to lay off the accents: occasionally it's as if one character or another doesn't need no steenkeeng badgezz. Diana Quick makes a powerful (sort-of-)matriarch, and Peter Polycarpou is on top form as the brother-in-law who thinks he's the business brains but in fact a grasping sleazeball. As daughter Conchita, Rachael Stirling so far lacks her mother Diana Rigg's expert control of facial nuance across those similarly sculpted features.

The production won't add to the disproportionate count of flops the Hampstead Theatre has suffered in the year and a half since its move to new premises, but it doesn't herald an overdue bright new dawn either. It's an agreeable way to spend a couple of hours, but not wildly compelling. Quite unusual, but interesting.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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