DONKEY HEART Trafalgar Studios 2, SW1




There’s a lovely, very Russian moment in Moses Raine’s play (in from the Old Red Lion and directed by his sister Nina, author of Tiger Country now at the Hampstead). We are in the Moscow apartment of three generations of modern, post-Communist citizens. Sasha, the nervy daughter of the house, is explaining to her guest Tom, a naive British student, why she cannot love him. Five years ago she kissed another boy and now says that love is “A place where space has no gravity…all night an ambulance wails in my soul”. Awkwardly lumpen, the thwarted English swain mutters “Yeah, okay, great whatever…”. And Sasha explains “This is fifth year I try and brainwash donkey heart, still it haven’t worked….”



It’s never going to. Sasha (Lisa Diveney) likes her dreams impossible. And they’re poles apart: she remembers the excited queues for a single egg in the 80’s, while all Tom connects with that decade is Pac-Man. He doesn’t wail internally, he probably bleeps. Raine, wittily and sadly, is evoking the legacy of the Communist era as “the deep bruise of history works its way to the surface”. Although there are some mercilessly funny moments, his family make Chekhov’s seem positively frivolous.



James Turner’s design in the tiny space sets it beautifully in a cramped defiant domesticity. The father is Ivan, a government official unable to express the family affection he feels: Paul Wyett gives him a clenched unsmiling tension. He has a secret: for a while we aren’t sure if it is personal or political. His wife is Zhenya, her pain delicately etched into every move by Amanda Root; their son Petya has failed to get round to bribing his way out of conscription, and quarrels with his leather-miniskirted girlfriend; ten-year-old Kolya is both rowdy and vulnerable, Sasha has her internal wailing to deal with, the guestTom is taking up space and speaks no Russian, and suddenly the foxy Natalia (Emily Bruni) is moved in, ostensibly because her rent has tripled. Maybe.


For life is still not simple in Moscow. Paranoia lurks in every conversation. Focusing it all, in a marvellous subtle tragicomic performance (it’s often the veterans who steal the show) we have Patrick Godfrey as the grandfather Alexander. He cheats at chess, dries his trousers with a hairdryer, and can’t bear to see a morsel of food wasted because he was in the siege of Leningrad, and ate rats. He lived through decades of the midnight knock on the door, bugged walls and the need to talk in metaphors; his young son was killed. In a remarkable scene he rises from amiable elderly absurdity to reprove Tom – through Sasha – when the British lunkhead ‘ironically’ wears a red, CCCP hammer-and-sickle T shirt.

It’s a slow-burn, its characters not quite defined enough, and as a play the energy dissipates in the last half-hour. But to set a traditional domestic drama so credibly within this haunted, uneasy Russian present is an achievement.


box office 0844 871 7632 to 30 Jan
Rating : three   3 Meece Rating


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