“Keep working, keep working, keep working, keep working…poor bastards”
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Love Girl and the Innocent hasn’t been seen in London for over 30 years and with a cast of over 50 characters, one can see the challenges facing anyone willing to take it on. It’s taken Matthew Dunster nearly 10 years but with Jagged Edge Productions and a multi-tasking cast of 16, he now brings his own adaptation to the Southwark Playhouse in an atmospheric if sprawling production that evokes the horrors and absurdities of life in the gulag.
Based on the playwright’s own experiences in the Soviet labour camps, the play is at its best in capturing the insane swirl of the prisoners as they jostle for position and privilege in the microcosm of Russian society that develops. Most have been sentenced to 10 years hard labour and so are in it for the long haul as they become part of a never-ending production line, but where they end up on it depends on their willingness to collude, corrupt and conspire to make their lives even just a smidgen better as the relentless demand for greater productivity comes from on high.
Some like Cian Barry’s noble Nemov try to maintain their innate decency in the face of a system that laughs at the idea of fairness; others are determined to be one of the few that prospers, like Ben Lee’s manipulative Khomich who replaces him as Production Chief; and still others, like Rebecca Oldfield’s Lyuba – the ‘Love Girl’ – work the few angles they have for some small gain. And once one becomes accustomed to the fast-moving carousel of characters, personalities do begin to emerge like the portly comedy of Rob Tofield’s Brylov and the strident fierceness of Emily Dobb’s Granya.
In this harsh environment, it would be hard for anything to prosper and the putative love story that emerges between Nemov and Lyuba flowers belatedly and briefly, both of them transformed momentarily by the potential of something but unable or unwilling to make the compromises necessary. But it only flickers with intensity, it never becomes truly affecting, and that’s the same for how I felt about the production as a whole. Dunster finds moments of visual impact in the brutal sequences that open and close the play, and also in a haunting group shower scene, but there are longueurs too, not helped by a over-generous running time and the puzzling choice of an 8pm start.