Olga Ivanovna is animated, clever, pretty, passionate and trapped in a small town, in a country that views another state, and another language, as holding the key to all elements of high culture. What is she to do? She twirls, she glows, she leaps around, collecting every visiting “star”, every scrap of local talent, shining desperately as the life of every party.
You might remember the actress Amy Stratton from Brookside and Coronation Street (as Jenny Gibson and Davina Dawes respectively, so I’m told), but at the Union Theatre in Southwark, South London, now she is Olga, a spectacular, sparkling, but oh-so-fragile Olga. And she’s the undoubted shining light of an ambitious production, The Little Dressmaker, which Linnie Redman has adapted from Chekhov’s short story “The Grasshopper”. This is commonly presented as a morality tale about the dangers of thoughtless following of emotion, but, taking a feminist slant on the story, my sympathies are with Olga.
Perhaps the men in the town have few opportunities, certainly there are few for her friend “the Musician”, played here in a technically virtuoso performance by David Laughton (on piano, violin, squeeze-box and balalaika*). Despite his skills, he is reduced to camp posturing and disappointed flouncing, but how much fewer are the chances for women?
You wonder if Olga, underneath the whirl, does indeed have that mysterious quality called “talent”. In one important respect she demonstrates it, for she picks an unlikely, bemused, but very smart doctor, Osip Dymov (Jack Reid) as her husband.
We meet the couple at their wedding, where it already looks like mismatch, as she dances frantically with her “artistic” friends and he retreats (in an unusual role reversal) to the kitchen. No genius is required to judge that this is an ill-matched pair, although we only ever get a glimpse into the doctor’s mind and a short view of his undoubted passion for his work.
Smouldering darkly in the background is a turbulent artist, Issac Ryabovsky, but is he as unbalanced as he seems, or just “playing” the mad genius? Harry Long plays the mad bits of the role with enthusiasm, but fails to show what might have drawn Olga to him in the first place, although she tells us: “It is the potential for greatness that excites me.”
And all of that excitement, with its own edge of madness, spills over as the couple come together on a dark autumn night in a peasant’s hut beside the Volga. There’s poetry in the air, and passion in the gaze of Ryabovsky, who’s determined to seduce his muse. Yet what comes, in a powerfully acted scene, is not a possession of a woman by a man, but a woman set alight to do her own consuming. Redman (who is also making her directorial debut) does a beautiful job with this scene.
Yet the play and the staging never quite reach such heights again, despite effective evocation of the salons and scenes of this Russian town. One problem is with the dressmaker of the title. This is not the fault of the engaging Anna Lanyon, but in the structure of the play. The dressmaker is always there, she is indeed the title, but what is she doing, really? I’m still not sure.
Nonetheless, while I wouldn’t call this a work of genius, this is a lively, intriguing production, worth seeing for the performance of Stratton alone.
The production continues until March 11. Tickets can be booked on 0207-261 9876. Links: The theatre. You can read the original Chekhov story here.
* A traditional Russia instrument like a lute.