Julia Bainbridge attended the Sherman Theatre to witness an updated version of Alexander Ostrovsky’s It’s a Family Affair… (We’ll Settle it Ourselves).
One may be forgiven a flutter of disquiet on learning that the performance of an 1849 play by an obscure Russian playwright will last for over two hours. Thankfully all anxiety was dispelled the minute Alexander Ostrovsky’s play, It’s a Family Affair… (We’ll Settle it Ourselves), began. What followed was a rip-roaring rollercoaster ride to the interval which arrived unexpectedly quickly and left the audience eager for the second part.
Banned for ten years, Ostrovsky’s debut play was allowed to be performed only when a suitable ‘moral’ ending was added in 1861. Simon Crowther’s excellent adaptation takes this satire on the greedy merchant class of mid-nineteenth century Russia and shows that life hasn’t changed much in the intervening hundred and fifty years. Lipochka’s self-centred, indulged life of 1850’s Russia perfectly mirrors the lives of youngsters in current reality shows like Made in Chelsea.
When self-made merchant Bolshov hatches a devious plan to declare himself bankrupt, his crafty clerk, Lazar takes the opportunity to purloin the business, house and Bolshov’s randy daughter. A mix of monologues and asides to the audience coupled with the lively plot makes the performance romp along like a rollicking Brian Rix farce. There’s plenty to laugh about. Crowther brings the play bang up-to-date with discreet jokes like the vodka merchant Smirnov, who’ll never amount to much. He handles the bad language deftly; it’s never gratuitous but enough to create a sense of jumped-up vulgarity.
Initially, the cast’s broad Welsh accents seem incongruous in a play where Russian newspapers are read and deals are made in kopeks. But in the end it doesn’t matter; the accents and bad wigs all add to the humour and entertainment of the performance. Rachel Redford as the spoilt, social climbing, Lipochka, gives a convincing performance as a daughter determined to find a man. The way she manipulates and argues with her mother is ironically contemporary. Ri Richards as her gum-chewing mother, Agrafena and Sian Reeves as the match-maker, Ustinya, are both energetic and faultless in their delivery and keep the performance bowling along. They’re aided by the dipsomaniac lawyer, Rispolozhensky (Guy Lewis), and the hapless servant Tishka (Gareth Tempest). Lee Mengo, as Lazar, hides his scheming behind a wig, beard and glasses which make him look like Harry Potter. Fortunately, this is dispelled as soon as he comes into his fortune and the full extent of his mercenary plan unfolds.
Director Roisin McBrinn has done an excellent job in bringing this little known play to the Sherman stage as part of the Theatre’s Fortieth Anniversary celebration programme. The pace never drops from start to finish and there’s little opportunity for audience attention to wander. The simple, but sumptuous gilt set epitomises the family’s failed attempt to upgrade into the aristocracy. In this play there are no happy endings. Greed begets more greed; parents are heartlessly banished to prison; debts are never paid off. It’s easy to understand why Plato would support the Russian ban. But if you err on the side of Aristotle, you’ll enjoy a good cathartic laugh at this entertaining performance. It’s got a long run and it’s worth catching.