The Last Ones, Jermyn Street Theatre, London, review: Daragh O'Malley as Ivan is excellent

The UK premiere of Maxim Gorky's play, which was banned in Russia due to its treatment of police corruption, is directed by Anthony Biggs 

Daragh O’Malley (Ivan) and Louise Gold (Sonya) in 'The Last Ones' at the Jermyn Street Theatre
Daragh O’Malley (Ivan) and Louise Gold (Sonya) in 'The Last Ones' at the Jermyn Street Theatre

Anthony Biggs bids farewell as artistic director of Jermyn Street Theatre with this pungent UK premiere of a flawed but fascinating play by Maxim Gorky. Written in 1908, The Last Ones was banned in Russia for its scathing treatment of police corruption and had only one performance during the author’s lifetime. Gorky has been described as the missing link between Chekhov and the Russian revolution, and some of his plays resemble those of his mentor, with the difference that Chekhov wrote as a sophisticated liberal with an ironic view of life, whereas Gorky wielded the pen of a passionate left-winger who was jailed and exiled for his political activity. If he’s too inclined to segregate his characters into good and bad, there is also a tension within Gorky – a disappointment with the rising educated class and the self-absorbed intelligentsia and a wariness of the masses – that makes him frustratedly alive to the tragicomic contradictions in the social changes sharply observed in plays such as Philistines, Summerfolk, Enemies and Children of the Sun.

Several of the characters in The Last Ones have the sense of living through a black farce. It’s a couple of years after the revolution of 1905 and Russia is in chaos. The Tsarist authorities have begun a crackdown. The central character is Ivan (Daragh O’Malley), a corrupt police chief who, having lost his position and his money, has forced himself and his large family on the hospitality of his kindly brother Iakov (Tim Woodward). Ivan has recently been shot at in an attempted assassination and has identified a suspected terrorist that he knows full well did not do it. The young man’s mother (Gillian Kirkpatrick) arrives demanding a public apology. But with the resurgence of the old order, an opportunity arrives for Ivan to bribe his way back into another police force, though at the humbler level of lieutenant. A climb-down over the suspect would not be a good career move. Besides, Ivan is entirely dependent on hand-outs from his brother because he’s squandered all of his own money on women and gambling.

The excellent O’Malley plays the character as an overbearing brute of a conscienceless liar and cheat who corrupts everything and everyone he touches, while convincing himself that he has been a martyr to the god-like duties of fatherhood. Ivan is notorious for his brutality towards political prisoners (two young men have died in his custody). The irony is that he is as incapable of facing up to the fact he has destroyed his own children who are vividly portrayed here. Either they have been debased by his venal example or are in the process of having their illusions about their father stripped away. Louise Gold is compellingly distraught as his wife who had a loving affair with her brother-in-law that produced the bitter combative Lyubov (Annabel Smith), who was crippled in an accident when young.

The collisions between these bickering progeny are choreographed with a sure touch in Biggs’s production, which also relishes, without over-heating, the normality of outrageous bribery in this society. A very satisfying swan-song.

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