BWW Review: A HERO OF OUR TIME, Arcola Theatre
Pechorin and Grushnitsky are all alpha male passive aggression - the chest bumps, the bantz, the greetings just a bit too loud and fulsome. They have history as soldiers - Pechorin is senior to Grushnitsky and makes sure he never forgets it. When pale, pretty Princess Mary hoves into view, brightening a drab spa town, you know we're heading for trouble - and we sure do.
Oliver Bennett (who plays Pechorin) and Vladimir Shcherban (who directs) have adapted a section of Mikhail Lermontov's novel in a way that has become familiar post-Hamilton. The characters are 19th century, their attitudes also largely 19th century, but their speech, their demeanour and their sensibilities feel 21st century - at least some of the time. They're funny too.
Pechorin is a PUA (pick-up artist) whose MO is "negging" and soon he's schooling Grushnitsky on how to woo Mary (and re-asserting their pecking order) while he deals with the unexpected arrival of his old flame, Vera, all bee-stung lips, diamond engagement ring and simmering sexiness. But she's not in the game - at least not often enough - so he turns his attention to Mary who, young and naive, falls for his negging scams.
Pechorin's motivation is neither love nor lust, just the desire to have Mary in the palm of his hand and deny Grushnitsky the object of his wooing. It's a classic ménage-a-trois, with nobody getting what they want, spiced up by the whiff of gunpowder in the air - settling such matters at the time demanded it.
Few productions generate as much energy as this one, the three actors in a continual state of embracing, wrestling, dancing. Mary (Scarlett Saunders in a very impressive stage debut) is flung about - metaphorically and literally - between these two men without ever losing her poise, itself quite a trick to pull off in a somewhat incongruous jumpsuit.
James Marlow does well to keep up with Bennett and Saunders, but he is excellent in portraying, with merely a look or two, how his self-esteem has been chipped away, leaving his honour diminished and in need of defence.
There's strong video work from Iain Syme and Oleg Katchinsky with wonderful use of music (La Saunders can really sing!) the songs perfect for the narrative, the video (for once) complementing the stage work rather than overpowering it.
The shoestring origins of the production sometimes poke through, but the work is never less than theatrical, never less than compelling, never less than true to its conception, even if it veers away from its source material at times. It would be a shame were we not to see these three actors together again, as there's an almost palpable trust between them that leads to the kind of chemistry that's hard to describe, but easy to discern. More please and soon!
Photo - Oleg Katchinsky