Sunday, April 10, 2016

'Russian Dolls' at the King's Head Theatre, 8th April 2016

The young delinquent building a fractious/supportive friendship with an elderly person is familiar dramatic territory. From the moment the house lights dropped I sat felt pretty confident that I knew where this one was going. 

My suspicions were confirmed pretty quickly when the teenager burgled the elderly woman, then returned a couple of scenes later with the stuff she couldn't fence. Then there's 'yer basic slow building of trust and heartwarming moments of connection, followed by betrayals, arguments and reconciliations. It's the kind of play in which a pistol is literally hung on the wall - Chekhov would be proud.

Evaluated in purely narrative terms, Kate Lock's Russian Dolls is constructed from prefabricated story chunks that slot together like Lego bricks. But dig a little deeper, and while the broad strokes are somewhat cliched, the granular moments that comprise them are emotive, well-researched and stupendously human.

The heart of Russian Dolls is an exploration of responsible motherhood. Teen delinquent Carmelia (Mollie Lambert) is the product of a home not so much broken as shattered. She's saddled with a smack addict Mum that doesn't give a shit about her, a coterie of abusive gangster friends and her own rock bottom self esteem. A couple of minutes after meeting her you feel like you can map her future: prison, alcoholism, drug abuse, unwanted children, an abusive partner, bitterness, depression and then the grave. Poor Camelia.

I've worked in family courts, dealing with child removals, custody and visitation rights and seen hundreds of people like her. Voluminous case bundles full of Camelias are stacked, ceiling high, in dusty county court backrooms across the country, each rubberbanded file chronicling familiar familial sagas of sexual abuse, trauma and neglect, generally all soaked in vast lakes of cheap booze. 

It's depressing shit. Things get to the point where an apparently monstrous move like removing a newborn baby from its mother's care feels the only humane thing to do. In Russian Dolls this social work realpolitik is represented by Stephanie Fayerman's Hilda. Blinded, elderly and isolated, we learn that she devoted her life to fostering, her experiences building a deep resentment of the mothers whose children she cared for.

Camelia and Hilda are personifications of opposing arguments - one furiously asserting her 'blood of my blood' connection to her own mother and any prospective children of her own, the other angrily concluding that the only absolute solution to the problem is mandatory sterilisation. To the playwright's credit, Lock doesn't attempt to fudge the answer with some dippy 'maybe the truth is in the middle" bullshit, recognising instead that this situation does not have a 'right' answer'.

Throughout all this there's an unmistakable tang of truth. Hilda is introduced frankly talking about her aging body, later giving us a poetic, moving account of what it feels like to go blind. Camelia's precocious bravado is constantly undercut by deeply depressing insights into her everyday life; a dog biting her younger brother's arm; her mother's erratic behaviour on a bus; her plaintive hopes for affection; and, perhaps weirdly the most moving for me, that despite living in South London her entire life, she's never seen the Thames, Big Ben or Trafalgar Square ("that shit's for tourists"). These moments feel real - so much so that I assume they're based on real-life accounts that Lock came across while researching the play.

On top of that, both Lambert and Fayerman are straightforwardly excellent. Lambert's Camelia is never entirely likeable, but at least we grasp why she's like this, eking out sympathy from some pretty unpromising ground. Fayerman's Hilda wins over the audience rather more quickly, the actor constantly layering in fresh elements that add up to a beautifully three-dimensional performance. Also, on a simple technical level, she really sells her character's blindness, to the point where I half wondered whether Fayerman was actually blind.

In the wrong hands Russian Dolls could come across as a bit soap operatic; cliches battling for control of our heartstrings. But this production understands the passionate arguments that lie at the heart of the material; the show having a palpable, visceral 'realness' to it. It's a pretty damn great piece of fringe theatre - one I'm grateful to have experienced.


Russian Dolls is at the King's Head Theatre until 23 April. Tickets here.

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