The Promise

Sat 4th – Fri 10th August 2018

reviews

Anna Marshall

at 06:32 on 6th Aug 2018

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There’s no way around it: this is a weird play. One Word Productions have chosen to revive Aleksei Arbuzov’s writing, and it’s all very stereotypical USSR. There are long silences, short scenes, big fur coats, and time jumps so that we can cover half a lifetime in the space of an hour: but don’t worry, it doesn’t feel like it. Stick with this production, and you’ll be rewarded with some unconventional moments of human truth, portrayed with breath-taking simplicity.

Arbuzov’s characters' experience of war deprives them of their youth. All three characters chase the demands for a maturity beyond their years to beautiful effect. Tyler Ford Reddington as an emotionally repressed boy soldier comes across initially as underperforming, but his understated emotions are crucial for the production’s overall accomplishment. May Brittenden’s character development is transfixing, making her cold and impersonal setting come alive with her character Laika’s turmoil, and providing even a few light-hearted moments that allow us to slip under Laika’s tough exterior. The few moments of childish glee bubbling over are confusing; but then again, oddly appropriate, because how else would a teenager living through the Second World War in lonely Leningrad be expected to behave?

One Word have added their own touch, not-least the Bohemian-style acoustic guitar player, whose role is never really revealed, beyond being ‘the neighbour’ that occasionally provides music for scene changes. Arbuzov’s writing is blunt and mostly unemotive, leaving One Word to add all trace of character relationships and timescales.

The short scene lengths provoke many shuffled set redesigns whilst the lights are off. Meanwhile we get intermittent Soviet propaganda announcements, which add little except to remind the extremely unobservant of the setting.

The crucial theme of this play seems to be the human nature that survives despite crushing morbidity all around. As the characters joke about the extra bread ration tokens that come with close family members dying, the shame for their brief snatch of happiness is pungent. A love story set during the Second World War: the twist on this one is it’s Russia, not London, and it involves three people over a very long time and no obviously right choices to be made. One Word make it clear that even in the darkest moments, our heart still has to beat, along with all the inevitable emotions it pumps.

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Molly Stock-Duerdoth

at 09:16 on 6th Aug 2018

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One Word Production’s staging of Aleksei Arbuzov’s 1965 play ‘The Promise’ explores the emotional struggle of three teenagers after they survive the Siege of Leningrad together. We follow 15-year-old Lika, her family dead or dispersed, attempting to survive in an abandoned flat which turns out to have belonged to the family of 17-year-old Marat. When Marat returns, his own family also killed, they manage to survive together, soon joined by another destitute teenager, Leonidik. The three quickly become a love triangle, but all are unable to properly communicate their feelings. We then see various episodes of their lives when the three are reunited as, having survived, they struggle to deal with the trauma of the war.

The story is told entirely through these three people, and the action restricted to a single flat, a set-up which fluctuates between comforting and claustrophobic. Scenes outside are spoken of or manifested with brilliantly executed and often startling lighting and sound effects. Lika becomes our main point of sympathy in the micro-universe – the other two appear rarely onstage without her, and she is often the one to ask the questions avoided by the others.

It’s a lot to fit into a performance which runs just over an hour, and this is apparent in the sometimes rushed actions and delivery. May Brittenden shines as Lika, communicating excellently her frustration as the men fail to acknowledge any emotion or break out of the destructive coping strategies they develop. Part of the issue is that we don’t see why Lika is so attached to Marat; he is consistently unpleasant to her and the characters aren’t given the space and complexity needed to make their crueller actions understandable. The early scenes, when the three first meet and forge the bond that drives the action of the play, often seem to rush for suspense and cliff hanger rather than properly exploring the developing relationship, making it difficult for them to resonate later.

There are some hugely engaging moments, such as Leonidik’s drunken argument with Marat about what it is to be “a real man”, and Lika and Marat's anxieties about whether they will reach their next birthdays. But the most poignant scenes, and often the most beautiful in the script, again feel rushed, and depth is repeatedly sacrificed for pace and tension. There is some fabulous material, and a few glimmers of excellent performance, but it is let down by the lack of time in which to tell the complex story, and by the script’s tendency towards melodrama.

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