"Enjoy the light touch, comrades!"
by Cameron Dunham for remotegoat on 09/04/14

Neatly side-stepping the “worthy but dreary” pitfall of much Eastern Bloc drama, this production of Havel’s “Largo Desolato” demonstrates a light touch and some nifty updating. With party heavies akin to Agent Smith and a cast that felt fresh and vibrant, I found myself wishing that director Jonathan Lermit had opted to furnish the set from Ikea, thus completing the journey to modernity. Ah well, we can’t have everything and Lermit seems to have got everything else pretty much spot on.

The play covers similar themes to Tower’s summer production of “Dying for It”, chief amongst these being the effects that outside pressures and expectations have on one’s mental health and sense of identity but here the resultant breakdown is woven into the very speech idioms and structuring of the drama. Professor James Nettles’ burgeoning paranoia and crumbling self-confidence are quite brilliantly refracted through the obsessively compulsive loops that he simultaneously instigates and is ensnared within.

It was this very personal disintegration that I found most absorbing. Whilst the play reflects the author’s own experiences and imprisonment, it has just as much to say about the dangers of peer pressure and peer expectation as it does about life under a totalitarian regime.

But what of the performances? Well, James McKendrick is extraordinarily good at the neurotic heart of this impressive cast. For all the clever dialogue, and of this there is much, it was McKendrick’s physical nuances that I found most engaging. When we first meet Nettles he is all facial tics, nervous twitches and choreographed repetition. Agoraphobic to the point of self-imposed house arrest, he’s the university professor equivalent of one of those poor zoo animals you see, pacing a cage too small, slowly losing what’s left of their marbles. As we watch the slow, inevitable implosion of this deeply flawed man, the burning question is whether he will manage to cling onto one last scrap of dignity before the drama’s denouement; it’s by no means a foregone conclusion, either way.

Also excellent is Emily Carmichael, whose initially vivacious Lucy transforms seamlessly into crushed, tearful disappointment via a spell in the wilds of wide-eyed intensity; she’s utterly compelling. Matthew Pert’s Edward provides a refreshingly boyish counter-foil to the nefarious intrigue surrounding him and I can safely say that I have never seen an on-stage affair handled so openly and innocently. In addition, the two Stanley’s provide some well earned laughs, Ian Grant’s Bertram is beguilingly insidious, the two chaps are intimidating and Anna Raine’s Suzana communicates a weariness revealing she is the only one who knows just what a let down Nettles really is.

In short, this production of Largo Desolato is ideal for those who like their oppressive communist-era drama a little on the light side, but fear not, Trotskyites: there’s still plenty here to discuss over the post play dumplings and vodka!

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