“the performances burn with an energy that transfixes throughout”
Since March, and I’m far from alone here, the only theatre I have been able to witness has been either beamed through a computer screen or, more recently, outside under our unpredictable skies. Consequently, one is bound to carry a heightened sense of expectation when returning to an indoor space for the first time. Any concerns, though, that these expectations are not reached are swiftly thwarted by HUNCHTheatre’s impassioned and inspired adaptation of Mikhail Lermontov’s “A Hero of Our Time”.
Having enjoyed critical success in Edinburgh and at the Arcola Theatre in 2018, it now comes to the Stone Nest: a former, nineteenth century Welsh Chapel tucked away on the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue. From the eighties it was the home of the infamous Limelight Club until it became just a pub; but for the last decade has stood empty. Until now. With its Norman style gallery and grand dome, it seems an appropriate space for presenting the moody, melancholic thoughts of Mikhail Lermontov. “A Hero of Our Time”, Lermontov’s final prose work, focuses on the anti-hero Pechorin whose tragic demise foreshadowed the author’s own death during a duel.
The romanticism of the setting, however, is outweighed by the somewhat poor acoustics of the church. However, Oliver Bennett and Vladimir Shcherban’s adaptation is inventive enough to be able to dispense with the backdrop and rely purely on their dramatic achievement. The writing is skilfully modern, and the performances burn with an energy that transfixes throughout. Bennett, as Pechorin, embodies the nihilistic intensity mixed with the melancholic sensitivity of the Romantic hero. The rich tones of his voice frame the aphorisms that are sometimes unbearably cruel, but impeccably aimed to wound his intended target. It is often difficult to feel a real sympathy towards this kind of self-centred protagonist, but Bennett reels us in with his winning charisma.
James Marlowe as Grushnitsky, his long-suffering friend, gives as good as he gets as the two face each other off over the young Princess Mary. Initially the underdog, Marlowe’s stage presence gives a real stealth to the character that ultimately threatens to usurp the hero’s tragic status. The two actors create an electrifying bond; and caught in its crossfire is Florence Roberts who convincingly plays the two pivotal women: Princess Mary, the pawn in the game (but don’t underestimate the power of the pawn!) and Pechorin’s ailing ex-lover, Vera.
The lines are blurred between comedy and tragedy, between the past and the present; but it is clear that we are witnessing a vital piece of theatre here. It exposes the conflicting emotions of the characters as being universal. It is not always comfortable – like biting into a lemon. The bitterness is as immediate as the sharp language of the text. Marred only by a few moments of extraneous physicality, the offbeat and avant-garde permeates the production.
The irony, the insight, the fatalism, the humour, the violence and the love; all embedded in Lermontov’s original, have not been lost over time. This is a show that resonates today just as compellingly; and these actors are the heroes of our time.
“The three singers each give pitch-perfect, passionate performances that lift the material beyond the realm of ‘folk’, allowing the listener to hear the underlying grander potential”
Stories are everywhere; and the inspiration behind these stories can spring up in some of the most unlikely places. This is certainly true for Jack Miles, the writer/composer of “St Anne Comes Home”. There was nothing particularly special about his bus ride through a rain-soaked Vauxhall, his spirits as damp as the pavement outside his window. There was nothing special about the man in the church doorway, whose solitary, melancholic profile flickered past as the bus turned away. Yet half an hour later that vague shadow had morphed into a multi-coloured, multi-faceted scenario in Miles’ mind.
We all do it, at some point. Paul Simon famously scribbled the lyrics to the iconic folk song “America” while imagining the lives of his fellow Greyhound bus passengers. Finding the drama within the minutiae of the mundane is a skill that Miles has put to good use in this new ‘folk musical’ premiering in the centre of Covent Garden, as part of the Iris Theatre Summer Festival in the garden of St Paul’s Church.
James (Jordan Castle) is the focal character; homeless and, to the annoyance of the local fair-weather parishioners, has made a temporary home in the doorway of St. Anne church. Estranged from his young daughter he seems initially to be running away from his problems. Here he meets Bridget (Rebecca McKinnis) who is trapped in an abusive marriage and struggling to raise her own child. Over tea and sympathy, they share their stories. Meanwhile Russell (Mathew Craig), the Catholic priest, battles with his own demons, torn between letting James into the flock or, by bowing to his congregation’s unchristian intolerance, rejecting him.
It is within the songs that one gets the true sense of the story, rather than the dialogue of platitudes that link them. The three singers each give pitch-perfect, passionate performances that lift the material beyond the realm of ‘folk’, allowing the listener to hear the underlying grander potential. At times, however, the emotion outweighs the content. The storyline follows a predictable path along which the stakes are never raised high enough to warrant the sheer outpouring of grief and anger that these singers convey. If this is an obstacle to being swept away by the characters, we do have the consolation of being blown away by the charisma of the cast.
And Jack Miles has crafted a selection of very fine songs. Miles himself accompanies on guitar, alongside Claudia Fuller on violin and Ben Jones on Double Bass. Under Joe Beighton’s assured musical supervision the delicacy of the arrangements highlights the fluctuating moods and melodic structure. Jones switches from bowing to picking in a beat, matching the emotional U-turns of the characters, while Fuller’s violin soothes and angers in perfect time to the libretto.
From the back seat of a bus to a front seat in London’s theatreland (albeit in the open air, while most of the theatre’s doors are still closed) this musical has been a year in the making so far. Director Martha Geelan has been at the helm in shaping the drama, moulding the imagination of Miles into a refreshing new piece of musical theatre. I don’t think they should stop here though. The journey is only just beginning, but that is meant as a sincere compliment. At the moment it comes across as a storm in a teacup, but its horizons are so much wider than that.