As a graduate of the Royal Court’s Young Writers programme, Penelope Skinner’s 2011 play The Village Bike earned her an Olivier Award nomination when it premiered at the acclaimed Sloane Square venue. Her new adaptation of Aleksei Arbuzov’s 1965 play, which is directed by graduate of the Donmar’s Resident Assistant Director programme Alex Sims, shows equal promise on opening night at the Trafalgar Studio 2.
Just when you thought you couldn’t cram any more young talent into the modestly sized venue, in walk Max Bennett, Gwilym Lee and Joanna Vanderham.
As the theatre quakes under the clamour of destructive shells and screeching sirens, Lika and Marat, two teenagers facing the horrors of war-torn Leningrad, are struggling to survive. Deprived of food and desperate for warmth, they have little more than each other and a half-burned mattress for comfort… until Leondik turns up, adding a third dimension to their blossoming relationship.
Some 13 years later, the tattered and charred mattress may have been replaced by more functional furnishings but it is the trio’s deep-seated friendship that now begins to disintegrate, as Lika is forced to choose between her two male companions.
Charting Lika’s journey from the edge of adulthood to assured maturity, Vanderham’s first half performance as an inquisitive and childlike figure – forced to grow up rapidly with the atrocities of war – conjures all the innocence and determination of a younger sister trying to prove herself to older siblings.
Lee and Bennett as her assertive and protective guardians are two powerful personalities, competing for Lika’s affections but still striving to remain the best of friends with each other. Bennett’s determined and hopeful Marat is still able to find a glimmer of humour within the dark abyss of hunger, while only the charm of Lee’s Leonidik, after all three emerge triumphant from the war’s life-threatening starvation, could get away with telling a woman she’s put on weight.
Though we never see outside their one-room abode, the trio’s polished performances and Skinner’s startlingly credible script bring to dark and disturbing light the Nazis’ brutal invasion of Russia and the thousands of emaciated bodies – nearly a third of Leningrad’s population – who died of cold and starvation during the appalling siege of World War II.
While the play’s conclusion gives Lika, Marat and Leonidik one last chance to fulfil their hopes and dreams, the young people involved in this accomplished production, including the immensely talented Vanderham in her professional stage debut, certainly have hopeful futures ahead of them.