“If you can’t drink, you’re a cripple.” Kotomtsev’s line pretty much sums up the morals of Mikhail and Vyacheslav Durnenkov’s Russian post-war drama.
Battered and broken Ilya (Jon Derrick) returns home from the wars a shell-shocked ‘hero’, perhaps a little common as a topic, only The Drunks – as its title profusely suggests – has a consumptive twist. Virtually everyone is reeling around, keeling over and nearly killing themselves in a dangerous game of who can drink the most vodka. You would think that to an audience of mostly students a scene like this would be second nature – but director Sebastian Romaniuk takes it to the next level in such a fast-paced disturbing drama.
We follow Ilya’s solitary journey, encountering mounting intoxication from people he once knew. Despite appearing a shell of his former self, he is quickly recognised as a hero and snatched up by the town’s two oppressive tyrants. Ilya’s puppet-like actions simply go through the motions, reacting numbly to the small-town politics that he is caught in the middle of. Derrick’s consistent, zombified performance was accompanied by constantly shaking hands, serving as a double reminder of the damage of war and cruelty of Russia’s winters. I felt myself like we had been dragged into a darker, deeper and much colder Wonderland than Alice fell down, complete with comical characters and maniacal madness.
Talking of maniacs, hats off to Jacob Seldon’s performance which nailed the role perfectly of the typically small-town corrupt Mayor.
Talking of maniacs, hats off to Jacob Seldon’s performance which nailed the role perfectly of the typically small-town corrupt Mayor. His rival, the masturbating, hyper-masculine Kotomtsev (Robert King) was equally brilliantly cast – his vulgar, ruthless performance was disturbing, to say the least, and I personally despised his character most of all. Matching their rivalry – or, more accurately, surpassing it – was the cool, confident portrayal of Aide (Georgie Smith) whose sober presence was both refreshing, yet unusual. As it turns out, never trust the only sober person in a drunk town!
Also refreshing were the tender, tense, and slightly awkward scenes between Ilya and his old sweetheart Natasha (Jess Corner). It was a relief to see some genuine human connection minus the inebriation, even if Ilya’s returns to the past were brief and left much more unsaid than resolved. The connection between generations was also a little strained – Ilya’s futile reunion with a son who does not recognise him provokes a pang of sympathy for this lost, broken family amidst all the ruin. I felt that more could have been developed, but maybe that’s just my sentimental side after having been exposed to excessive amounts of intoxication.
Intoxicated is the word of the play – all ensemble members did an effortless job of acting drunk,
Intoxicated is the word of the play – all ensemble members did an effortless job of acting drunk, which is much harder than it sounds, and sliding easily from one role to another, aided by the subtly placed costume racks upstage. The fast-paced, active tone constantly had my attention diverted away from the many changes. In addition to ensemble, Sergey (Alice Lloyd-Davies) and Babitsky (George Blackman) convincingly portrayed the roles of ambitious journalist and seemingly-innocent pensioner. Despite the large cast number in such a confined space, they were never a distraction as I was constantly focused on the dynamic changes of mood switching from scene to scene.
My one reservation would be the seating plan; the audience can sit around the edges of the stage, almost with a round-like feel to the Barn. Whilst this helps include the ‘townspeople’, as we were referred to, there were a minimal number of scenes where the action was literally blocked by actors. Being seated on the side, the lighting was also a little harsh from that perspective, but these minor issues cannot be helped in a ‘round’ setting. From whichever seat you will have an excellent view, just prepare yourself to be occasionally restricted.
Despite the horrific nature and dark comedy characterising Romaniuk’s production, I greatly enjoyed the strong, convincing performances and contrasts between fast-paced action and the softer, tender moments. The Drunks is certainly a play typical of small-town corruption, enhanced by the freezing backdrop of Russia’s winter, so definitely go and experience some harsh, political drama in the Barn this weekend – though you may want a shot to prepare yourself first!
The Drunks continues to run in The Drama Barn until Sunday 25th February. For more information and tickets please visit www.yorkdramasoc.com