Review: A Dashing Fellow by Belka Productions

Belka Productions is dedicated to presenting rare Russian and European texts, and it was therefore fitting that my first encounter with their work was a fusion of both – an adaptation of three stories by Vladimir Nabokov, a Russian emigr√© who lived for a while in West Germany. The play is a strange Russo-German amalgamation: evoking Isherwood‘s Berlin, as interpreted by Ebb and Fosse, and combining the detachment of Brecht with the lack of moral finality of Chekov, which would leave you unsatisfied were it not for the perfidious, yet magnetic central character.

The piece is about journeys and is set in a railway station, and the design by Agnes Treplin is deceptively simple, and perfectly suited to the storytelling. As we enter the space, platform benches are occupied by characters we don’t yet know, who are waiting, as we are, for the journey to begin. The focal centrepoint is a small truck with a cuboid scaffolding frame, seats arranged like a railway carriage, on which sits an androgynous character dressed in black, hollow-eyed, but with an outrageous sense of panache. As the play begins s/he introduces herself as Frau Monde, who also happens to be the devil, and who engages directly with the audience throughout, while manipulating the characters with supercilious glee as their lives unravel before us.

All three interwoven stories pit a search for love in its various forms against the choices we make in life. Lena searches for her husband, Alexey, but his affair with his cocaine habit is more important to him, and so they are destined to remain apart. Erwin is desperate for physical love, from which he has so far been excluded due to his unaccountable shyness, but when he is tempted with the promise of a harem his greed loses him the prize he so desperately craves. The bubbly Sonia seeks a provider, but unwisely chooses the philandering Konstantin who, in a boldly-directed and shocking episode, destroys her joie-de-vivre in his own search for casual love.

The cast are exceptionally strong. Peter Clements, in a standout performance as the sinister Frau Monde, is stylish and engaging, making bold character choices and delivering them with supreme assurance. Kate Craggs as Lena plays the character’s vulnerability beautifully and Madeleine Knight perfectly maps Sonia’s descent from would-be user to victim. Luke Courtier as the cocaine addict Alexey gives a subtle performance, but never quite plunders the depths to which his character sinks.

By contrast, Edward Cole as Erwin and Joel Gorf as Konstantin are both a little overstated, matching Peter Clements’ stylised approach instead of playing naturalism against it as the other performers do, which leaves the audience constantly readjusting to the different stylistic levels of each story as they interweave, although this may have been a directorial decision by Simon Eves. As a result, however, Erwin seems too caricatured and Konstantin overly laboured in his delivery.

But this hardly detracts from the overall triumph of the piece, which is skilfully directed and beautifully realised, with excellent performances, exquisitely simple yet impeccable design, and superb production values which wouldn’t have seemed out of place in a much larger venue. The addition of live music, composed by Musical Director, Rhys Lewis and Writer, Ben Maier, is evocative of the cabaret style of Kurt Weill, and lifted the piece whenever it threatened to become too gloomy; and the original script by Belka founder, Rosy Benjamin and Ben Maier flowed well and perfectly matched the multicultural feel of the original Nabokov.

A Dashing Fellow is a great show, which will captivate you and make you want to see what this company do next. I’ll certainly be looking out for Belka Productions in the future!

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