'Cold War' review – love, war and scarred beauty in this music-infused Polish drama

Read our three-star review of Cold War, directed by Rupert Goold, now in performances at the Almeida Theatre to 27 January.

Julia Rank
Julia Rank

Based on the 2018 film by Pawel Pawlikowski, Cold War sees writer Conor McPherson return to a format similar to his acclaimed, Bob Dylan-infused drama Girl from the North Country. This time, he and director Rupert Goold combine Polish folk music with songs by Elvis Costello (Costello is not Polish and the reason for using his music isn’t entirely clear).

The show occupies a grey area between a musical and a play with music. The protagonists are a musician and a singer; the early numbers are part of a performance within a show, but many are expressionistic evocations of the characters’ state of mind. Attempting to be an intimate epic in a production that’s understated by Goold’s standards, it’s a mood piece which puts the individual ahead of the political, yet lacks a heady individual connection.

Set in Soviet-occupied Poland, a state-sponsored folk music project is holding auditions for a touring troupe to perform traditional songs (usually about love or the Devil) that are “too shit to be played on the radio” but have their uses as propaganda tools.

Managed by entrepreneur Kaczmarek (played by Elliot Levy like a spivvier version of Uncle Max in The Sound of Music – it’s a shame we don’t see more of him to lighten the angst), the troupe are required to belt out songs celebrating factories, combine harvesters and Comrade Stalin, much to the disgust of the artists among them.

The premise is a bit like that of an operetta with a dark heart, and it also calls to mind Jacques Demy and Michel Legrand’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg without the whimsy. Self-described mountain girl Zula (The Witcher’s Anya Chalotra) sets her kerchief at musicologist Wiktor (Luke Thallon), ending his colleagues-with-benefits relationship with high-minded choreographer Irena (a terribly underused Alex Young).

With Wiktor seeking freedom in Paris by defecting to the West, and then undertaking self-inflicted penance back in Poland, there’s cold comfort to be found in this Christmas-season show.

The leads aren’t particularly compelling in drawing out the characters’ supposed eternal love, which drags out the already languid pacing. Chalotra’s Zula, a strong singer, comes across as rather immature and petulant, while the mannered Thallon’s offhand Wiktor remains a cold fish even when we learn the reason for his reserve. “God, we were alive when we met,” he remarks towards the end, but his character is half-dead from the beginning.

Jon Bausor’s chilly set design, like a bombed-out theatre or church, works well for post-war Poland but is less successful for 1950s Paris. Changes of settings and the passing of time are reflected by Paule Constable’s lighting and the way in which Evie Gurney’s costumes range from utilitarian drabness to Parisian glamour and clubland tackiness.

There are several flashes of scarred beauty, but there’s a feeling of it being unfinished: a tighter script, real chemistry between the leads and a fully Polish score would all lend considerably more power.

Cold War is at the Almeida Theatre through 27 January.

Photo credit: Cold War (Photo by Marc Brenner)

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