THEATRE / One party, but two states: Paul Taylor reviews Misha's Party, the RSC's unusual new Russo-American collaboration at the Pit

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The Independent Culture
THE WAY Misha's Party was written sounds like something dreamed up in a novel by David Lodge - or, indeed, a play by Richard Nelson, one of its co-writers. As part of a Russian-American exchange programme, Chicago-born Nelson was 'matched' with Alexander Gelman, a dramatist best known here for A Man with Connections, his bitter comedy about the strains of working in Soviet industry, its hero at once despising the corruption-riddled 'system' and helplessly addicted to it.

The idea of the scheme was that they should think about adapting each other's work, but Nelson arrived in Moscow determined they were going to write a new play together from scratch. Unlike Beaumont and Fletcher, Gelman and Nelson couldn't speak a word of each other's language, so the decision to collaborate was nothing if not intrepid. And certainly it would seem that at least a Pulitzer for patience should go to the translators who had to sit, sober and alert, through the long, vodka-fuelled writing sessions.

If David Lodge were writing the script, this is the point at which the playwrights would start sleeping with one another's wives and /or the translators, who would, of course, be perpetrating tiny but momentous communication cock-ups. If it were a play by Nelson (whose flair for the subtle, needling comedy of culture clash is familiar to British audiences from such works as Some Americans Abroad and Two Shakespearean Actors), there would be minutely observed social gatherings in both countries, where the visiting playwright would squirm at the behaviour, on alien soil, of his compatriots before something happened that made him realise that he, too, was just a tourist. In neither scenario, though, is it at all likely that the project would be completed.

That this was, happily, not the case in real life can be verified now by a trip to the Pit, where Misha's Party has just opened in a David Jones production that's a feast of wonderful ensemble playing and of performances that crackle with sharply characterising detail. About the play itself, I'm somewhat less ecstatic. It begins very promisingly. Accompanied by rousing Russian choral music, projections flash up that tell us we're in Moscow during the August coup of 1991 and that the upmarket Ukraine hotel, where the play is set, overlooks the Russian White House where Yeltsin and his pro-democracy supporters have barricaded themselves.

Hilarious cut to the hotel restaurant where a young Russian 'lounge' singer is crucifying Lloyd Webber's 'Memory', flecks from the glitter- ball swimming over the bilious floral swirls of the hideous carpet. The deafening chants of Yeltsin supporters outside force the song to a halt until the windows are shut, whereupon Lloyd Webber implacably resumes. Opening and closing the play alone are two people who have only just met. Mary (superb Sara Kestelman) is an American whose 15-year-old granddaughter has gone missing taking photographs in the crowd. To help distract her while she waits for news, Barry Foster's Misha (all rumpled bemusement and practised charm) includes her in the 60th birthday party he has organised for himself, to which he has rashly invited both his ex-wives, their current spouses, his daughter and his alarmingly youthful fiancee. Drawing on the wisdom of three score years, he wants to give a speech reminding people that 'simpler doesn't mean better', but throughout the play whenever he stands up with his crumpled notes, something (whether it be the next course, the arrival of tanks outside or an explosion) contrives to cuts him off.

The play's joky-sad, modest (and recurrent) swerving away from 'significance' has, I'd guess, the Nelson thumb-print on it. But some may feel the private, Chekhovian angle on the coup taken here is carried to implausible lengths. The wranglings and mutual underminings round the dinner table are often very funny (with Cheryl Campbell and Barbara Jefford perfection as the ex-wives), but it's hard to credit that, with History happening outside the window, they would take such an apparently desultory interest in it. And while the play does introduce types specific to present-day Moscow (such as the smooth American businessman, resident there), there is a sense that (on this night of all nights) too much of the comedy could be happening anywhere, not least the long misapprehension (or is it?) that Misha is terminally ill.

Harold Pinter's Party Time also focused on a function where people hob-nobbed while a military presence built up outside. Here, though, the people who are interested in politics are all peripheral figures. Perhaps this imbalance is humane but the angle is a frustrating one, like being forced to view the Taj Mahal through the corner of your eye.

Continues in rep at The Pit (071-638 8891).

(Photograph omitted)