This new adaptation by Ron Hutchinson is powerful and explosive with lots of black humour, which is directed splendidly by Howard Davis, who had recent success in the West End with "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" at the Aldwych Theatre.
The play concerns the mental anxieties and torture suffered by the White Russian Army during the civil war with the 'Reds'. The story is told in 8 dreams where survival of the war depends on pure luck rather than prudence or planning. An example of this is in the first scene at the monastery when Seggei Golubkov', a university student, is captured by the 'Reds' and accused of being on the side of the 'Whites'. This because he is so close to the front line. However, the student explains that the frontline is every where " It is like a balloon tied to you, it follows you where ever you go!"
The first thing to hit you when you enter the auditorium is the massive set, designed by Tim Hatley. It is one of the biggest sets I have seen on stage. It is a great big black wall, that is incredibly versatile and it has doors and windows appearing in it where other sets materialise. It has smoke and fire coming from it and other fascinating artefacts! It captures the mood and atmosphere perfectly.
The play is breathtaking and gripping, with some brilliant scenes and characters that are carried off marvellously by a talented and professional cast. Alan Howard, as Roman Khludov, the White Army Chief of Staff is the star of the show with, yet again, a stunning performance. I have seen Alan Howard many times, and he is for me one of the best actors on the British stage. The character he plays is ruthless and mad, yet Howard plays him in an almost camp kind of a way. His facial expressions are a dream, and his timing exceptional. The play is worth seeing just for his performance alone! However, he is not the only impressive performer on stage. This play is so full of great characters, which it brings the best out of the actors. Kenneth Cranham puts in a fine performance playing 'Major General Grisha Charnota', who is impoverished after fleeing to Constantinople as his army was losing. Nicholas Jones is in cracking form as 'Paramon Korzukin' the Russian minister of Trade who cares more about his wealth than the war, and who disowns his wife in order to save his own neck. There is a lively and comical performance by Michael Mueller as 'Seggei Golubkov' a university student who gets caught up in all sorts of comical mishaps. There are many more fine performances that give this play a stamp of quality.
The popular press like the play. SHERIDAN MORLEY says, "It is a rich and rare treat". NICHOLAS DE JONGH of the EVENING STANDARD says it is "One of the most powerful evocations of civil war written this century" and goes on to say "It achieves an epic sweep and dash". BILL HAGERTY of THE NEWS OF THE WORLD describes it as a "Visual delight".
The play loses its way a little after the interval and never really reaches the heights of the first act. But it is still a good production that is worth seeing.