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The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Rialto Theatre Brighton

The Death of Ivan Ilyich

The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Rialto Theatre Brighton

Reviewed – 8th May 2019


“as an audience, we remained uninvested and disconnected from Ivan’s fate, and therefore the story had no meaning”


Tolstoy wrote the novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich in 1886, some years after his mid-life religious conversion. It tells the story of a high-court judge in 19th century Russia; his suffering from terminal illness and eventual death. This ‘updated version’ is faithful to the novella’s structure. We watch Ivan Ilyich’s painful decline in the midst of his family, who are too busy attending to their own selfish needs to see what is actually happening to him until it’s too late. We see his colleagues, intent on climbing the promotional ladder; his so-called best friend, with whom he no longer has any meaningful connection; and the pompous and self-congratulatory medical establishment, too immersed in their own concerns to properly address the needs of their patient. The only character capable of kindness and empathy, in this adaptation as well as in the novella, is Gerasim, the young man who cares for him. Ivan’s world (and by extension, our own) is exposed as one of petty materialism, and his relationships as empty and superficial. When he has his crisis of the soul, on the brink of death, we see that Gerasim’s kindness and empathy is the only truth, and the essential meaning of what it is to be alive.

Over a century on from Tolstoy’s profound literary meditation on the meaning of life and death, at a time when the world is hurtling toward climate catastrophe yet capitalist economies show no sign of paying attention, and materialist consumer culture is all-pervasive, an updated version of this simple story could be a searing and confrontational piece of theatre. Unfortunately, Unmasked Theatre’s banal, soulless and amateurish production was none of those things. It takes more than the addition of contemporary props (the ubiquitous mobile and laptop) and clunky references (the John Lewis Christmas ad) to update a story. And why, oh why, did Unmasked choose to stick with the Russian names? If we’re going to be in middle-class England, let’s actually be there. Kevin Cherry, as Ivan, made a reasonable fist of his central role, but the characterisation elsewhere was utterly superficial and the actors’ delivery skin-deep and unconnected. Multi-role work takes more than a change of clothing, and none of the characters were clearly realised or defined, which meant that, as an audience, we remained uninvested and disconnected from Ivan’s fate, and therefore the story had no meaning.

Putting on a fringe production is a labour of love, and there is rarely much money to go round, which means that fancy production design is not on the menu. Simplicity and invention therefore have to be the name of the game, and, sadly, this lesson did not seem to have been learned here. The tiny stage was far too busy, there were too many unnecessary costume changes, and the lighting and sound design was intrusive and heavy-handed (it was also unfortunate that there was clearly a rogue light which flashed on centre stage throughout). There was one well-realised and inventive staging sequence, involving the arrival of packages into the house, but it was the only one, and ultimately the only emotion this reviewer experienced at Ivan Ilyich’s death was relief.


Reviewed by Rebecca Crankshaw

Photography by Zo Morgan


The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Rialto Theatre Brighton until 13th May as part of Brighton Fringe


Last ten shows covered by this reviewer:
Bon Voyage, Bob | ★★½ | Sadler’s Wells Theatre | February 2019
Digging Deep | ★★★★ | The Vaults | February 2019
The Lady From The Sea | ★★ | Print Room at the Coronet | February 2019
The Pirates Of Penzance | ★★★★ | Wilton’s Music Hall | February 2019
The Problem With Fletcher Mott | ★★★ | Drayton Arms | February 2019
To Move In Time | ★★½ | The Yard Theatre | February 2019
My White Best Friend | ★★★★★ | The Bunker | March 2019
The Shape Of the Pain | ★★★★★ | Wilton’s Music Hall | March 2019
The Hired Man | ★★★ | Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch | April 2019
Toast | ★★★ | The Other Palace | April 2019


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The Polished Scar – 3 Stars


The Polished Scar

Rialto Theatre – Brighton Fringe

Reviewed – 15th May 2018


“Though the premise of the piece is sound, it can sometimes play out rather predictably”


Conformity comes in many shapes and sizes, but invariably it crushes the soul. This is, in part at least, the moral of The Polished Scar, a one-man play written and performed by Duncan Henderson. However, it is only at around the halfway mark that the conflict at the heart of the piece begins to make itself clear.

Told in a series of vignettes, the play follows an unnamed protagonist through a privileged but ultimately hollow life. At boarding school, he quickly learns that bullying is the best way to avoid being bullied, and that making friends with the “right” people is more important than meaningful relationships. He floats seamlessly from the Oxford Union to a seat in parliament, with the smugness of a man who believes that it is his birth right to do so. But his cold exterior is only a front, a defence against the pain of being sent away from home so young. Inevitably, tragically, the fragile foundations of his life must crumble.

Though the premise of the piece is sound, it can sometimes play out rather predictably. Being as it is a portrait of a Cameronite Conservative, it is almost as though Henderson felt he had to include an episode of coke-fuelled carousing, and later another in which political influence is used to get a friend out of an embarrassing jam. Amusing though these sequences are, they feel somewhat generic and tell us little if anything about the character himself.

Far more interesting are the scenes in which his emotional wounds are most obviously on show. For example, when he has injured a boy in a bullying incident at school, and with the last shreds of his guilt evaporating, he warns the victim “not to make a fuss”. Or later when he is trying to convince his wife that their son will be okay at boarding school, and he repeats the phrase “I went and I’m fine” over and over like some kind of morbid mantra. These chapters are where the true meat of the show is to be found, but too much filler means it is hard to see what direction the piece is going in until well into its hour-long running time.

Henderson himself puts in a strong performance, his smooth, almost hypnotic voice fitting the phony politician’s charm perfectly. The stage dressing is sparse – a single chair and occasionally a table – meaning Henderson must hold our gaze throughout. He succeeds, and perhaps the best thing about this show is just how watchable Henderson is. So believable is his portrayal, that the aforementioned holes in the plot don’t become obvious until afterwards.

At times The Polished Scar can feel didactic, a simple case against upper class social rigidity. But by its devastating finale, it would take an especially cynical viewer to argue that it hadn’t made its case well. The only wish is that it could have been made tighter.


Reviewed by Harry True


The Polished Scar

Brighton Fringe



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