THEATRE / Under western eyes: Paul Taylor on Don Taylor's Retreat from Moscow at the New End, Hampstead

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE DOWDY, kindly-looking man is a left-wing classicist made redundant by the Thatcher cuts; the sour-faced girl, barricaded behind the ironing board, is his daughter, a disillusioned English graduate who seems to think that by contemptuously skivvying for the guilt-ridden middle classes she's making some sort of nihilistic statement about our value-less age. In Don Taylor's Retreat from Moscow, the depressing lives of this pair are boisterously invaded by an old, larger- than-life Russian friend on an unscheduled trip from Moscow.

Enveloping them in Slavic warmth, the friend is also soon exposing them to a tricky proposition. In his suitcase, he's smuggled out radioactive KGB files that contain the answers to some of the century's best-kept secrets. If they collaborate with him, they could make a fortune. Is he then a Euripidean deus ex machina (as Tom, the classicist, would put it) or is this more a case of 'Never trust a Russian bearing gifts'?

The situation has plenty of farcical potential, but Taylor forgoes that in favour of fashioning a slow- paced, passionate discussion-play in which English idealistic innocence and scarred, contaminated Russian experience struggle to understand each other's conflicting attitudes to the idea of the Just City, the New Jerusalem. Always intelligent, ardent and interesting, the play is also irritatingly long- winded, diagrammatic and stodgy, with only Barry Stanton's superb performance as the bear-like Boris (his hearty demonstrativeness crumbling, by the end, to give painful glimpses of the shamed, morally disintegrated man beneath) properly managing to give rounded, complex life to the stereotyped characterisation.

'If you've experienced real corruption as I have, then a little bit of Vanity Fair doesn't seem too bad,' says the Muscovite, rallying from his broken confession of complicity with the old regime and going off on a shopping spree. The discussions in the play dramatise how hard it is to perceive things through the spectacles of another culture. From the point of view of the daughter (Lucy Taylor), her Thatcher-conditioned generation seems to have had 'the shitty end of the stick' (which sounds ridiculous to Boris) and though her father (all scuffed, furrowed decency in Michael N Harbour's performance) may begin by earnestly maintaining that England and Russia are in parallel situations (post-Thatcher; post-Communism), his refusal to judge Boris at the end precisely stems from a recognition that it's impossible to know how one would have acted in similar circumstances.

The intense confabs throw up intriguing topics (history as Sophoclean tragedy, or a random cock- up like Romeo and Juliet?), but too many of the speeches sound as though the characters have been honing them on the lecture circuit for years. There are also moments of clumsiness both in dialogue ('But historical scholarship, as I don't need to tell you . . .' followed by his doing just that) and in stage-craft (a line like 'Sorry I've been so long, I couldn't find the spare duvet covers' merely draws attention to what it is supposed to excuse).

There is also a leaden sub-plot involving an Indian girl (Krishna Kumari) whose father won't pay for her classics tuition. Desperate to get to university and to avoid an arranged marriage, she is there as a pointed cultural contrast to the disaffected English woman (and also to prick her conscience). It's their joint decision to give this student free lessons that provides the happy ending of a sort.

When, though, father and daughter finish the play with a joint rendition of the Russian national anthem, it's not the sound of hope you hear but the deafening clang of heavy engineering. There is, by the way, a prize piece of product-placement in the play. Tom refers his pupil to the Methuen translation of Sophocles. Translator? One Don Taylor.

To 31 Jan, New End Theatre NW3 (071-794 0022)