Romance with a Double Bass

Fri 26th – Sat 27th August 2011


James Albon

at 11:14 on 27th Aug 2011



Russian literature has built itself a bit of a reputation, hasn’t it? The mention of Chekhov tends to evoke visions of black-clad heroines muttering in dark, cryptic metaphors about various seabirds in a grim prosaic reflection of the morose, unending... you get the picture. But Chekhov also covered more light-hearted ground, including short story Romance with a Double Bass, adapted for your pleasure by the good people of UWE.

The premise is simple: a double bass player plays with an orchestra at the betrothal of a Russian princess, falls in love with her, and through a series of amusing coincidences ends up having to transport her back to the palace hidden in his double bass case. It’s a comedy of errors that makes a fun contrast to Chekhov’s better-known tragedies. It’s just such a shame that Romance with a Double bass is just not very good.

I don’t know where to start. The script lacks wit and pace, with little of Chekhov’s eloquence surviving the adaptation to stage. The two lead characters are introduced, but by no means established, and seem to have little chemistry between them- just a functional relationship to get the princess smuggled back. The minor characters charm a little more, but their performances rely heavily on caricature rather than personality, while the costumes look like fancy dress and the set is a baffling arrangement of objects that beggar even the most willing suspension of disbelief.

But that’s not all. One of the strangest issues is the abundant nudity: pants-only nudity, granted, and it’s not a question of prudishness, but an almost-naked girl in a play that’s so light-hearted and facetious has a degree of impact that doesn’t seem to fit with the tone. Wouldn’t some coy, Adam-and-Eve ivy leaves been funnier, rather than nudity which is just kind of there?

But the biggest bombshell is the case itself. The double bass case, which the princess hides in, and forms the basis for literally everything in the play. There isn’t one. They don’t even use a box. They use a large plank of plywood, which the princess hides behind. At first I would have put this down to budgets limitations, but later in the play one of the characters produces an actual double bass, which surely has its own case sitting waiting in the wings.

I still feel bad writing all this though. Despite the many flaws, the cast all look like their having fun, some of the lines are delivered with charm and timing which suggests that at least they were watching a Monty Python boxed set when they should have been rehearsing. It can’t really be criticised alongside other shows: they haven’t set out to win Oscars, they’ve set out to have fun together, and I can respect that. The audience seemed mostly to be family and friends, and at least they had a good time. It kept me out of the rain for an hour, but unless you’re related to the cast, I can’t recommend going.


Pat Massey

at 11:54 on 27th Aug 2011



I was reluctant to confess that choosing to review this play was my last-ditch attempt to appreciate Chekhov. Reluctant, because a bad review could look like unsubstantiated prejudice against the author, rather than the production. Rest assured, Vershinin himself would find this lacking.

So let's start with Chekhov himself. A Chekhov virgin may be surprised that he wrote comedy; if you've experienced 'classic' Chekhov before you might wonder how he found it possible. It appears 'get naked' are the magic words. It isn't that I don't like lowbrow humour, but this is a pale imitation of lowbrow humour. The nakedness is the be-all and end-all. And in the 21st century mere nakedness elicits a shrug. Had Chekhov heightened his other characters' sense of outrage, we might find amusement in what, to us, is much ado about nothing. Yet the story wraps up rather timidly.

Having elected to adapt this story, UWE Bristol should have mined more farce out of it. Some acting deserves mention: the constant fluster of Smychkov; a sibilant foil in Princess Constanza; and a Count whose frozen seizure of a facial expression affords his character thematically appropriate quirk. Yet the rest of the cast brings what one would expect to their roles and nothing more. A tad one-note? 'Plainsong' comes to mind.

Their director acknowledges at the end that “we are a small society in a big university”. She and the cast know they are underdogs whose energy, rather than fluidity, is their selling point. I recognize and appreciate this energy. Even so, the clumsy ons and offs of the double-bass, and the poor imitations of playing upon it, should have been remedied. Such treatment of a key prop is indicative of a general laxness. Yes, it's an amateur production by students. But the average production of this ilk should be more fluid than this.

A caveat: I will commend the production team's decision to expose Princess Constanza's breasts. I admire bold moves, and it was the closest they could have captured the essence of what was explicit content in Chekhov's day without crossing lines of taste.

Overall, the source material just doesn't fit dramatic transfer. It's a rare seven-page story which works without severe tweaking, which this played-straight production doesn't do. Save myself and Patrick Sykes, I suspect the audience was related to or acquainted with the cast, laughing from people they knew doing farcical things. I must be cruel to be kind.


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