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Review: BLISS, Finborough Theatre

Based on a Russian short story, this new play never quite overcomes the challenges posed by its structure

Review: BLISS, Finborough Theatre

Review: BLISS, Finborough Theatre In the chaotic aftermath of the Russian Revolution, Nikita follows a tramp along a riverbank until he reaches his home town where he meets a childhood friend, Lyuba. He starving and smelly, she's bright and bubbly, a medical student full of optimism. Almost by default (most people their age are dead or gone) a hesitant romance is kindled in the ashes of war, but the PTSD has eaten all the way into Nikita's soul and the tramp has turned from a guide into a brooding malevolent shadow.

Fraser Grace's play is based on a 1939 short story by Andrey Platonov which vibrates with that certain strand of Russian sensibility that one might call the 'hopelessness of hope'. Of course, with the ordinary Russian soldier once more pitched into a war on what was Soviet soil, the resonances are clear and there's something to cling on to at the end, so maybe the message is that there is light at the end of the tunnel - I certainly hope so.

Jesse Rutherford's Nikita has the pinched look of a Raskolnikov, occasionally turning mute, locking his pain away inside his tormented mind. Bess Roche captures Lyuba's desires and fears, all floating on her willingness to believe the best in Nikita and in herself - she is born out of time into a world with little use for her considerable potential. Jeremy Killick packs plenty of eerie menace into his ghostly tramp and later when doubling as The Investigator, who articulates some of the hellish scenes that have provoked Nikita's trauma.

Paul Bourne takes on both design and directing duties and never quite balances the two. The cast have to effect so many set changes (wooden crates and pallets used to suggest homes, workplaces and even a river) that the dramatic tension dissipates almost as soon as it has built and the run time is pushed out to over two and a half hours - and there just isn't enough story for that.

We get the symbolism of a revolution building something that then needs to be rebuilt, but it's asking too much of an audience to see so much back and forth on stage - I ended up concerned about the cast's risk of splinters, which rather shatters the intended mood.

As ever, this venue is willing to take a chance on new and challenging work - a laudable service to theatre especially in the aftershock of the pandemic - but I wondered what was new about this new play. It's well acted, the costumes are particularly impressive at close quarters and it's plugging into an increasing awareness of how mental health can impact on relationships, but PTSD has been mined out as a theme for post-conflict drama and I couldn't discern wider themes beyond that.

Maybe that absence of an effective anchor to the plot would not of been so clear had a pacy one hour version been staged but there are so many opportunities for the mind to wander that one ponders about where exactly the heart of the story lies - and, unlike the river that defines the landscape, one finds the substance of the tale to be rather too shallow.

Bliss is at the Finborough Theatre until 11th June

Photo Credit: Jack Sain



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