Jermyn Street Theatre, London SW1
Opened 15 January, 1997

The little basement theatre in Jermyn Street has quietly built up a speciality of presenting solo autobiographical shows, ranging in the past year from Liliane Montevecchi reliving her Broadway glories in miniature to the string of atrocities genially narrated by "Mad" Frankie Fraser. Currently Caroline Blakiston is filling her days off from the RSC by chronicling on stage the saga in which she became "the first English actress to play Chekhov, in Russia, in Russian."

Blakiston enters looking and chattering (in Russian) like any Muscovite wrapped up against the winter blasts, slowly and garrulously divesting herself as an object lesson in why any Russian winter meeting takes several minutes to get down to business. She then proceeds to recount the events of her engagement to play Charlotta Ivanovna in The Cherry Orchard in 1991 with the theatre company in Taganrog, the town of Chekhov's birth. She indulges in the occasional conjuring trick learned for Charlotta's performance, and punctuates her story with tapes made on her little recorder and played on the same machine (connected to the theatre's P.A. system) of everything from the bells of the Kremlin to the mournful mandolin songs played at her farewell party.

She delivers her observations and experiences with poise and precision, almost to excess; her material predominantly shows the characteristics of the written rather than the spoken word. Black Bread And Cucumber (the title refers to her regular Taganrog lunch) is not a series of anecdotes, or a cosy chat Blakiston is giving us her recollections in organised and well-honed form. Every wry aside, one feels, is expertly planned. At times she veers towards poetic travelogue, evoking an image of Russia as filmed by David Lean at once grandiose and warmly human; at others, the threat of luvviedom looms, as she recalls her enjoyment of being pampered like a baby or "a well stroked pet".

There is, though, little spirit of self-aggrandisement, and the only occasions on which Blakiston at all dramatises the process of drama are a clutch of brief rhapsodies in the second act upon members of the Moscow Arts Theatre company, with whom she recreated the role of Charlotta the following year. On the eve of her first performance, one of the older mainstays of the company died; her description of his onstage, public funeral and the familial desolation of his fellows is truly moving. On the press night the final section of the monologue felt hastily abbreviated almost two hours leading up to a simple, "Well, I did it; eat your heart out, Napoleon." Nevertheless, along the way Blakiston shows herself to be a keen, sensitive observer and participant, and one who no doubt fully merited pulling off the "first" in question.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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