Black Milk

'Black Milk' presented by Prime Cut Productions.

'Black Milk' presented by Prime Cut Productions.

'Black Milk' presented by Prime Cut Productions.

'Black Milk' presented by Prime Cut Productions.

When Frankie McCafferty's narrator opens Black Milk with a rich description of the non-place in which the action is to be set, his arms outstretched at shoulder height, basking in the reflected twirling lights of a glitter ball, there was the promise that this production would glory in its own theatricality. However, almost as quickly as McCafferty is reduced to the role of a drunkard sleeping on a bench, the play's sense of adventure evaporates. It is not that there are not possibilities in the story of how two young Muscovite scammers, the heavily pregnant Poppet (Amy Molloy) and Lyovchick (Packy Lee), find their relationship challenged when they are stuck in a rural train station in the middle of Russia. Their scheme to sell toasters to the locals seems to have earned them a tidy sum until they are confronted by a chorus of customers who have realised that they were swindled when they accepted the "free" toasters, but paid four times the delivery price. When unreformed communist, Myshania (Keith Dunphy), drunk on the hooch distilled by the ticket clerk (Ruth Hegarty), confronts them with a gun, Poppet goes into labour. In the second act, set ten days later, formerly hard-bitten Poppet has been transformed by being forced to rely on the kindness of the country strangers she had hitherto despised, while Lyovchick can't wait to get away to add to the roll of notes which signifies his sense of status. To stay or to go becomes the dilemma, for Poppet a choice between God and Mammon.

The problem was that the élan required to realise the possibility of humour in all this was never created and without it, the piece became a rather dull exposition of the poverty of the neo-capitalist Russian spirit. Paul O'Mahony's set of drab green flats, punctuated by windows and doors, created what I imagine was a passable rendition of a waiting room in a Siberian railway station, but the box set constrained rather than liberated the action. Yet if the timidity of merely replicating in design the actuality being represented was one fault, the failure of nerve in the direction was far more serious. The script itself is challenging and flawed, demanding that the audience accept leaps in tone and character behaviour. Moreover, the dialogue was jarringly over-written (and clumsily translated in parts), something from which the decision to use Northern Irish idiom could not rescue it. But the most substantial problem was that there was no consistent sense of a theatrical aesthetic at work.

Packy Lee was licensed to strut and preen as Lyovchick with the station as his domain, beguiling, berating and bullying his way to his approximation of wealth. Here the actor-character revelled in the role, but volume could not substitute for depth in either case. Similarly, while dressed by Diana Ellis in the same style of wide-boy chic, Amy Molloy struggled to either convince or engage as Poppet. Hers was the more difficult role, since her character's mood swings serve as the gauge of the play's changes of tone. Her performance did not achieve the range or depth which this required. The director was at fault here, for not insisting on a nuanced delivery with attack. He must accept responsibility too for the cloyingly drawn-out leave-taking between Poppet and Helena Bereen's Auntie Pasha in the second act. Pasha might have served as the moral centre of the play, but the loss of pace and tension at this point left me impatient with the dull repetition of the writing and playing. Throughout the performance, the actors looked adrift, never fully comfortable with where they were or what they were being asked to do, meandering between caricature and cliché. The company's limited gestural repertoire was most apparent in Ruth Hegarty's ticket clerk but this derived in part from the positioning of the actors on the stage which rarely created either visual interest or performance dynamic. The overall absence of ensemble was obvious too in the chorus of complaining villagers, who are meant to enter as a group fired with righteous anger and to leave each on his or her own, belittled and derided by Lyovchick. Jammed against the wall stage left, they could barely be faulted for not responding as a group, until they are peeled off one-by-one by Lyovchick's caustic attack.

It is not clear whether or not the director was over-awed by the reputation of the play or the playwright, both overstated on this showing, or perhaps by the weight of its condemnation of contemporary Russia. Reverting to sit-com realism as a default position, however, robbed the company of an opportunity to play with the material in a way that would make sense in performance. It wasn't clear whether the whoops at the curtain call from the largely student audience were of approbation for the actors or relief for themselves.

Dr Tom Maguire teaches Drama at the University of Ulster.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Black Milk by Vassily Sigarev, translated by Sasha Dugdale

21 - 31 October, 2009

Produced by Prime Cut Productions
In Brian Friel Theatre, University Square, Belfast

Presented as part of the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's

Directed by Matthew Torney

Set Design: Paul O'Mahony

With: Helena Bereen, Moyna Cope, Keith Dunphy, Ruth Hegarty, Packy Lee, Frankie McCafferty, and Amy Molloy