“Conversations meander helplessly. The dialogue is clunky and rarely meaningful; emotions remain unstirred and the characters one dimensional”
Stray Dogs is based on the lives of three fascinating individuals: poet Anna Akhmatova, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, and philosopher Isaiah Berlin. Akhmatova, once banned by the Soviet Union, agrees to use her writing to spread Stalinist ideology in exchange for the freedom of Lev, her imprisoned son. Stalin is not only a powerful dictator, but a frustrated poet who knows that the manipulation of the written word can secure his power better than any force or action could. Berlin, now living in Britain, visits Akhmatova in secret and pleas with her to leave Russia and claim her personal and literary freedom.
Unfortunately, Stray Dogs does not portray these events in a fascinating manner. Heavy and overly ponderous, this two hour show would benefit from an extensive edit, restructure, and refocus. Despite the speeches and poems that hang from the ceiling and the papers that are stuffed into Stalin’s desk drawers, the word does not have the power that it should. Conversations meander helplessly. The dialogue is clunky and rarely meaningful; emotions remain unstirred and the characters one dimensional. The brightest moments are when Akhmatova’s poetry is read aloud. These alone give us a glimpse of what Stalin must have seen to recruit her for such a task.
Of the three, it is Stalin – and I never thought I’d say this – that comes across as the most human. This is thanks to a strong performance from Ian Redford, who nails humorous and horrifying moments alike. He, of all the actors, inhabits his role most fully, and is convincing throughout. Olivia Olsen, playing Anna, feels very much at odds with her role. Her acting style does not quite gel with that of her co-stars, lending the scenes an awkward, jittery rhythm that do not elevate them above their static nature. Ben Porter is not given much to do as Isaiah Berlin, but his warmth does act as a nice contrast to the fury of Redford’s Stalin. And yet he, like Olsen, gives a performance that lacks emotional honesty. Even when receiving news about her imprisoned son, Olsen’s hysterical reaction does not convince – nor does Porter’s tearful insistence that Anna leave Russia or die. From a historical standpoint the stakes could not be higher. The Great Purge and World War Two both coincide with and determine the plot of this play, but as events in themselves they feel about as real and as tangible as the words that Anna cannot bring herself to write.
Above all, this play feels like a missed opportunity to tell a pertinent story about the power of language and art in a time of crisis. With a firm edit this piece could have potential, but as it stands it is difficult to understand, engage with, or enjoy.
“an important play that intuitively understands the struggles of being a teenager in a toxic, image-focused society”
Alice is sixteen and eagerly waiting for something exciting to happen to her. Something that involves Fit Jamie from maths; something that proves she isn’t being left behind. But when something does happen, it is neither as exciting, nor as good, as she hoped it would be. It is something difficult. Something with consequences.
Amy Blakelock’s examination of social media, sex and teenage anxiety has all the elements of a good story: a likeable protagonist, a compelling narrative, and a shocking twist. Blakelock tells this story using an authentic teenage voice. Aspects sound a little artificial, but are mostly pertinent and always entertaining. The early parts of her script are full of faux maturity, sprinkled with clichés about how GCSEs can’t be all that – ‘Dad only got one O Level, and that was in woodwork’ – and the definitive list of what men (read: teenage boys) want. Blakelock effectively deepens these themes as the story grows darker, forcing the audience to reflect on the damage that such highly promoted ideals can do.
Robyn Wilson is endearing as Alice, full of energy and openness that makes her easy to connect with. Her delivery is subtly humorous in its naïveté, but still ripples with emotional honesty. The highlight of Wilson’s performance is her portrayal of Alice’s response to the event, in which these ripples become torrents that chill the observer.
Another aspect that deserves praise is Verity Johnson’s set, which acts as a clever metaphor for the themes of openness and shame. Four white platforms and a set of lockers become hiding places for painful aspects of the past that lie in wait until Alice is ready to reclaim them.
The main issue is the pace of the show: whilst it creates a character arc and a satisfying conclusion, this comes at the expense of close examination. There are several aspects of this story that I feel could have been expanded on. It would have been interesting, for example, to see the consequences faced not only by Alice, but by the perpetrators. Even this moment in Alice’s story feels a little vague, as her interactions with teachers, counsellors and the police pass us by in quick succession. I think it would have been beneficial to interrogate how schools deal with events like this, and whether or not the outcome really reflects the seriousness of the crime. It would also have explained Alice’s new found wisdom, which Wilson beautifully exhibits in the final scene.
Despite its flaws, Easy is an important play that intuitively understands the struggles of being a teenager in a toxic, image-focused society. Whilst it may seem to be a play for teenage girls about teenage girls, it is key that this kind of story reaches everyone, so that we can, as a whole, understand the implications of this toxicity on young people today.