The subject matter of Kate Lock’s award-winning play, with its world premiere at the King’s Head Theatre pub, is one that many of the audience will have been confronted with at an early age in the form of Jacqueline Wilson’s Tracy Beaker bestsellers – the life and woes of children taken into care. This interpretation, however, approaches the theme from a completely opposite angle, telling the story of an unlikely friendship blossoming between a girl recently out of the Young Offender’s Unit and a recently blind ex-foster-mother outside of the care environment. Communicated with wit and panache, Lock succeeds in portraying a wonderfully tender and yet highly fragile relationship between two equally flawed characters while, admiringly, not falling into the trap of ‘trying to give the audience all the answers’.
The beautifully written script was herein helped by two truly spectacular performances – both Stephanie Fayerman and Mollie Lambert were utterly breath-taking as Hilda and Camelia. Fayerman especially managed to tackle what, on paper, must be a rather unsympathetic character (with lines suggesting that every teenage mum in the poorer district of London should be sterilized) and yet retain a unique bond with the audience that forced us to sympathize with where this view was coming from. However, the main success of both these interpretations was in the way Lambert and Fayerman interacted onstage – both actresses complimented each other wonderfully, creating a wholly believable and quietly heart-breaking tale that was only amplified by the relationship’s disintegration in the last scene. In a theatrical culture that is still sadly lacking in meaty female parts, this play is an excellent example of how actresses, no matter what age, can more than live up to and even surpass their male counterparts.
Putting on a show at the King’s Head does throw up its own challenges, the main one obviously being the size and set-up on the onstage space. The style Lock decided on using, switching between a more monologue-type approach where Camelia and Hilda describe events that happen outside their individual meetings to showing the meetings themselves, works especially well in a space like this – too many characters would clog up the stage space and muddy the wonderfully concentrated focus on the young girl and elderly woman. Sadly, however, the choice of how to stage these story-telling sections seemed slightly un-imaginative, not to mention hindered by the inevitable naturalistic props of table/chairs/shelves that littered the stage. The switching between intense realism and a more overtly ‘theatrical’ approach felt like it needed something somewhat stronger to define it visually instead of being somewhat boxed in between the wonderfully thought-out joint scenes. I can appreciate the difficulty of this in a space where every square centimetre counts, but it still felt somewhat like a trick missed.
However, the main triumph of the entire play had to be the ending – so often new writers feel the need to somehow ‘wrap things up’ and come to a kind of resolution, that Lock’s decision to just leave Hilda and Camelia at the point their relationship breaks down is particularly praiseworthy. It made the whole piece feel less like a ‘story’ as such, and much more like a tiny snapshot of someone’s life; a life that will then continue to exist after the audience have left the theatre. My only qualm is that the entire situation of Camelia’s pregnancy was brought up and then dealt with very suddenly, almost as if Lock had suddenly realized that she was skirting rather close to the ideal 80-minute cut-off point. A little more time spent on this last section would have meant the emotional impact when Hilda refuses to help and Camelia consequently turns her away would have been far stronger; however, these are small criticisms in what was ultimately a beautifully successful play. I wait with baited breath for the next Adrian Page award holds in store – if it’s anything like Russian Dolls, it’s sure to be one to watch.
Russian Dolls is playing at the King’s Head from the 9th-23rd of April at 15.00 and 20.30. Tickets can be found at www.kingsheadtheatre.com
Stephanie Fayerman: Hilda
Mollie Lambert: Camelia
Writer: Kate Lock
Director: Hamish MacDougall
Assistant Director: Jennifer Davis
Designer: Becky-Dee Trevenen
Lighting Designer: Joshua Gadsby
Sound Designer: Max Pappenheim
Casting Director: Andrew Davies
Stage Manager: Sinead Sexton
ASM: George Smith
ASM: Dave Spencer