Minerva Studio, Chichester
Opened 30 June, 2009

"Anastasia screamed in vain." Mick Jagger covered the salient details of the Romanovs' death in a few words in "Sympathy For The Devil", and Heidi Thomas does not significantly add to the picture in the two and a half hours of The House Of Special Purpose, the name given by the Soviet revolutionary authorities to the building in which the Tsar and his family were held in Ekaterinburg in 1918.

Thomas provides incident and characterisation. Anastasia is the family joker; her sister Olga's view of the world has been tainted by her rape by the soldiers transporting her as a prisoner; the haemophiliac Tsarevich Alexei is so self-indulgent in his ill-health that he would try the patience of a panoply of saints.  Two of the daughters form attachments of differing kinds (and degrees of requital) to a couple of the contingent guarding them, and we also get a little by-play about the Tsar's haemorrhoids.

But none of it seems to add up to anything in particular. More to the point, nothing of substance comes of a plot strand concerning a note smuggled in to the family from supporters promising imminent rescue, nor of the suborning by the Cheka of one of the women who visit the house to report on the goings-on among both the Romanovs and the garrison. We draw inferences from the sudden disappearance of certain figures ("volunteered for the front," the family are told without regard to plausibility), but it all seems dramatically undervalued. Even though we know exactly where the play is going – towards a volley of gunshots in the offstage basement – it doesn't feel as if it is going anywhere. Matters are not helped by a televisual scenic structure (Thomas won a clutch of awards for her TV adaptation Cranford) and too-busy, too-frequent set changes in Howard Davies' staging and William Dudley's design.

Adrian Rawlins as Nicholas does a fine job of being personably royal, making himself politely affable even to his jailers, and Clare Holman is never vexed beyond the bounds of decorum as the Tsarina. Kate O'Flynn's Anastasia finds liveliness and relief where she can, and Kieran Bew is touching as a laundryman-turned-revolutionary. But Thomas gives no impression of having any compelling reason to tell the story; Anastasia's final offstage screams are after all in vain.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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