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Russian Transport

"A world-weary tragedy shot through with dark, spiky humour"

Audrey review: A jagged comic thriller depicts the devastation of an outwardly successful family transplanted to the land of the free.

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Category: Theatre
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Russian Transport

Date: 14 Mar 2019

A Russian family has settled in the land of the free and plenty. They have a two-storey home; the children are educated and enterprising; the father runs his own car dispatch business right next door.

Yet the reality behind this scorecard of success is very different.

Financial troubles usher in unwholesome dependencies and violence. Resentful under the oppressive regime of their parents, teenage angst smoulders. The intelligent Mira is yoked to domestic, pointless tasks. Alex’s “pussy-hunting” is financed by his father, while his job earnings are pocketed by his mother, Diana.

Their vulnerabilities are highly exploitable. Enter Boris (Nathan Sapsford), an uncle of all charms, whose arrival means only trouble.

A world-weary tragedy shot through with dark, spiky humour, Erika Sheffer’s Russian Transport rolls like a yellow fog through a fugue of self-knowing delusions, moral trade-offs, corruption and diseased loyalties. Despair is a kind of intergenerational heritage and suffering, it seems, has a place at the table simply because it’s always been accepted as a guest.

Despite the warm reunion and the celebratory drinks, Diana hasn’t laid eyes on her younger brother Boris since he was 18. We also learn, through roundabout and then terribly unequivocal ways, this handsome slicker is a criminal and a brute who plays each family member to his advantage.

Boris co-opts Alex into a nefarious scheme involving a car, a young Russian ingénue (played by the same actress as his sister) and a certain contraband product. The matriarchal Diana, glinting with stone-cold pragmatism through Rebecca Rocheford Davies’ portrayal, approves. Her gangling, guttural husband Misha (Berynn Schwerdt) is failing her as a provider. Catastrophically, the whole clan fails to protect one another, caught up as abettors and undercover operatives in each other’s secrets and schemes.

The children themselves have no memory of the old country, and – with heavy American accents and rebellious spirits – dream their own insurrectionary dreams. Mira (Hayley Sullivan), whose parents are concerned only with her preserving her virginity, wages a dogged campaign to study art in Florence. Alex (Ryan Carter), a uni student who works commission for Verizon and whenever needed for his father, has another hustle going on. With the savings, he plans a more permanent escape.

As the children grow more estranged from each other and who they used to be, a murky morality thickens. The sense of being cast adrift is intensified by the fact that a fair portion of the dialogue is in Russian. Sometimes these passages are translated for the benefit of a non-fluent character; sometimes not.

The stage design on which the drama plays out is an entirely impressive feat. Into the ample hollow of Eternity Playhouse, a cosy, well-furnished home supported by sturdy wooden beams opens up. To the side, the silver snout of an actual car has been transplanted on the stage, its headlights eerily aglow. Up a staircase is a bedroom as a mezzanine. Originally Mira’s room, this rook is occupied by the mastermind Boris. Later, (as the theatre warns its patrons) it will be the site of a sexual assault.

The elaborate set by Anna Gardiner is complemented by retro-futuristic music in the scene changes, and impeccable lighting design by Martin Kinnane. Worked largely around a configuration of overhead lights and prop lamps being turned on and off, alternately throwing out shadows and yellowy pools of light, it suffuses the story with an affecting noir mood.

Heightened by the fact Eternity’s air-con is cold enough to freeze the nuts off a polar bear, I felt the bleakness of this play to my marrow. Despite the dialogue being laced with colourful streaks of humour, the comedy is of a kind to rip jagging, cynical barks from spectators rather than invite chuckling delight. Take, for instance, Diana’s response to the typical teenage complaint “but that’s unfair”: “Your grandmother was raped by Nazis. Is life fair?”

Particularly strong in its second act, director Joseph Uchitel’s production is a slow-paced thriller that gathers itself with menacing sureness to devastate a family and its individual members. How can you come back from the actions you allow? it asks. From the choices you make? Have we any free will or hope in the traps we find ourselves in?

Small solace is offered. With so many cultural narratives declaiming love to be the ultimate redeemer, Russian Transport seems not so sure.

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