Theatre: Flight

National Theatre

So what is a nice boy like me doing in a darkened theatre on a freakishly warm and sunny February Saturday afternoon? Answer: sitting with a jam- packed Olivier audience on the receiving end of a richly enjoyable demonstration of why we have and need the National. Bulgakov's Flight is not, to say the least, a foreseeable crowd-pleaser. Banned in mid-rehearsal by Stalin in 1928 for being "an anti-Soviet phenomenon", it has not hit the English stage until now, and in some ways you can see why.

Unfolding in eight "dreams", it brilliantly scrambles epic and farce, meeting the madness of the era it depicts with the sanity of a kind of cosmic, objective irony that manages - and this is the master-stroke - to retain a strong, elusive streak of subjective romance. As it follows the White army on its cock-up-ridden retreat from the Reds and into hapless exile in Constantinople and Paris, the play exuberantly breaks most of the rules of conventional development.

It's right, then, that Howard Davies's mighty - yet often touchingly intimate - production continually false-foots you into unexpected areas of laughter and feeling, from the moment, at the start, when a host of Russians on the run are blurted through a towering wall of collapsible panels and electrical wiring, to the wishful sequence at the end when, under a nostalgic fall of snow and to the rapt strains of a Russian hymn, some of the refugees surrender to the aching desire to return home, despite the likelihood there of torture and death.

In between, the principal exiles undergo crazy deviations of identity. One minute you're the commander of a White hussar regiment, the next (via a bad head wound) you're in topper and tails, lucratively tricking the locals in a Constantinople bazaar into believing that cockroach-racing was the preferred sport of the late Tsar and Tsarina.

Nothing evens out predictably. A White counter-intelligence torturer (Geoffrey Hutchings) has an endearing chip on his shoulder that plumbers (which is what he was before) are grossly taken for granted between toilet breakdowns, and he can't resist engaging in an absurdly elegant little waltz with the woman he's interrogating. Alan Howard's magnificent General Khludov, flouncing through the mayhem with a marvellously unhurried hauteur, like a Victorian actor-manager rising above an unsuccessful regional tour, is a mad, murderous monster who none the less turns, in the shy integrity of his belated self-recognition, into one of the most moving characters in literature.

Who but Bulgakov would dramatise a climactic high-stakes card game, brilliantly played here by Kenneth Cranham and Nicholas Jones, so that the comedy and tension lay not in the question of who was going to win but in the seizures of camouflaged, chair-biting dismay and elation caused by the fact that the luck is ludicrously one-sided. True, there are blemishes. For example, the cod orientalism of the Constantinople scenes is too close to Aladdin for comfort. But it's a tribute to the National's brave programming, and to the comic vigour of Ron Hutchinson's adaptation, that, after the interval and despite intense competition from the lovely weather, the matinee crowd all returned for more.

Paul Taylor