March On Russia
Orange Tree Theatre Autumn 2017
In the 1960s and 1970s every playwright with working-class roots wrote his (and they were generally male) version of what turned out to be an archetypal play – the one about the clash between working-class parents and their middle-class children.
In every variant on the common theme accusations are exchanged of being stuck in the past or forgetting where you came from, of love withheld or sacrifices unappreciated, of favouritism among siblings or unrealistic expectations.
The genre was so well established by the early 1970s that Monty Python could parody it in a sketch about a playwright's son who wanted to go down the mines.
Having made his contribution to the genre with In Celebration in 1969, David Storey felt moved to return to it twenty years later with The March On Russia (The title refers to an oft-told WW1 story of father's), only to find the vein pretty much mined out.
We're in the home of a retired miner and his wife on their sixtieth anniversary. They're actually fairly comfortably off, thanks to the support of their son and two daughters, respectively a successful writer but failed academic, a divorced local politician and a lumpen hausfrau.
In the course of casual small talk each of the parents will complain of the quirks of the other that drive them crazy, and each of the children will dig up childhood grudges against each other or criticise each other's current life choices.
The parents will each be pushed to admit that they preferred one or another child and were unable fully to love one of the others, and the children will each confess a failure or emptiness in their lives.
None of it will be new to anyone who had ever been to the theatre or watched television two decades earlier, and none of it is offered with any of the real anger that drove the best of the earlier group of plays.
It may be that this is David Storey's point, that the high passions and things-said-that-can-never-be-unsaid crises of plays like In Celebration were unreal, and that life's disappointments are made up of smaller and not especially dramatic moments.
But unless you are Chekhov and a genius at ferreting out tiny but very real tragedies, that makes for a smaller and not especially dramatic play.
Under Alice Hamilton's direction a hard-working cast try to turn what are really just stock figures of the genre into rounded and believable humans.
Ian Gelder and Sue Wallace as the parents are most nearly successful, capturing the almost ritualistic banter and swapping of insults that thinly disguise real resentments and creating the convincing portrait of people who love but don't always particularly like each other.
Colin Tierney, Sarah Belcher and Connie Walker are just given too little to work with as the children, and can't do too much with it.
A critic once wrote about one of American playwright Neil Simon's few flops 'Neil Simon didn't have an idea for a new play this year. But he wrote it anyway.' The March On Russia has very little to say, and Storey seems to have had very little driving him to say it.
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