Julian Eaves reviews the World Premiere of Stray Dogs presented by Dead Letter Perfect now playing at the Park Theatre, London.
Park Theatre 90
15th November 2019
There certainly seems to be a glut of vanity projects clogging the London theatre scene right now: how very in keeping with the current political landscape. And here comes another! Olivia Olsen is the driving ego behind and also in front of this venture – she is also the only member of the company to get her photograph on the flyer, poster and programme – and the Park Theatre is the venue that she has persuaded – somehow – to present her in all her glory.
Ostensibly, this is a play about the Soviet poetess, Anna Akhmatova, and her turbulent relationship with Josef Stalin, who – having bumped off all the greatest patriotic story-tellers of the day, found himself with a demoralised people in need to cheering up so they could wage the Great Patriotic War against his erstwhile enemy-friend-enemy, Nazi Germany. Having already murdered her husband, Stalin used her incarcerated son as bait to lure her into collaboration with him, and each time she stepped out of line, he'd continue this cat-and-mouse game, sometimes making her believe he was dead, just to jolt her back into submission. It is a powerful story of an autocrat against an artist – a trope that has been used many times before, and will doubtless keep re-appearing. Stalin, as a subject of dramatisation, is a sure-fire bet, and here, as so many, many times before, he comes up trumps, especially in the sterling impersonation offered by Ian Redford (the one reason why you should go and see this production).
Redford uses his instrument – his bearish body, his magnificently versatile and expressive voice – to fullest effect, pushing out into every corner of the little box theatre space tucked away at the back of the theatre, but never actually making his performance too big. Equally, he is the master of brooding stillness and icy poise, with every gesture calculated for the most devastating effect. It is a joy to watch and listen to him, but a sobering thought to see how he outclasses the other two performers in this drama. The other man, Ben Porter, has been much, much better than he is here, as a colourless Isaiah Berlin, who, we are asked to believe, returns to Russia to be with the woman he once loved… yes, you guessed it, the eternally important Olsen. I mean, Akhmatova.
As for the star herself, well, she gives a monotonously prim account of the part she has concocted for the writer: every inch the sexless blue-stocking, Stalin reels off a list of her lovers as we listen in blank incredulity: at another moment, he calls her a ‘C**t!' If you feel a desperate need to see yet another woman cast as martyred victim and doormat, then hurry along to the Park for this dubious experience. Meanwhile, not content with being an indifferent actress, Olsen here confirms herself as a broadly speaking incompetent dramatist. The scenes with Stalin are – generally – the strongest, but one is inclined to reflect that this is probably in large part owing to the superb performance of Redford (and Peter Wright's help with the script). But the scenes without him demonstrate such flatness and lack of theatrical imagination that it really does beggar belief that the Park can have thought them worthy of presentation. If they really need a good play about the relationship of autocrats with their people, then revive Corneille: no-one does it better.
In the programme, Olsen thanks many people, including, ‘Antony Eden, producer…. meeting every challenge with the most adept lance you could imagine.' Hmmm. She writes many odd things in her little programme article: ‘Stray Dogs is a quintessence: the essence, argument and qualities of three people based on research given theatrical narrative'. If her scripts are written with such bizarre grammar and punctuation (or lack of it), then sometimes I'd be at a loss to know what she meant.
Robin Herford, directing, does what he can to disguise the shortcomings in the book. He is obviously happiest when he has a really good actor, Redford, to work with, and generally stuck when it comes to knowing how to manage Olsen and the here inert Porter. He gets fabulous support from Clancy Flynn's lighting – one of the few things that makes structural sense in the production. Paul Colwell turns out an interesting but not always helpful set: his costumes fare better – especially putting Olsen in a pencil-thin blue dress – if any script ever needed a blue pencil then hers does. Harry Johnson's ambient sound is perfect, mixing the noises of their world with the sublime music to rise out of the oppressive regime.
Overall, by the end of ‘Stray Dogs' I was in need of one: to therapeutically pet.
Until 7 December 2019