Black Snow – Camden Fringe, Etcetera Theatre

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Book, Music Lyrics and Director: Alistair Bourne

 Why, why do I suffer asks Sergei Leontievich, the protagonist of Alistair Bourne’s new musical Black Snow which premieres at the Camden Fringe. Unfortunately, that is the lot of Russian characters in literature so Sergei must endure the torments and convolutions that her creator intends. Staged at the Etcetera Theatre and based on Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel, this very promising show captures the mood of Moscow’s literary salons while celebrating the process pf adapting a novel for theatre.

Struggling writer Sergei Leontievich pens a novel that all her advisors say will sink without a trace, but when a book contract offers a wider audience, Sergei is given the chance to adapt Black Snow for the stage. Suddenly immersed in the theatre, she struggles to respond to the demands of writing for a different audience and an invitation from a superstar director results in suggested rewrites. But Sergei is determined to make the work her own.

This boutique musical by Curios Theatre is a real find, a piece that knows the style and purpose of its source material while making a smart and distinctive work that brings Bulgakov’s story vividly to life. The musical choices are sophisticated, using a first-person narrative from Sergei that directs the story, intermingled with acted scenes and songs that variously combine single and multiple voices. Songs are primarily expositional, moving the story or characterisation forward with a combination that is largely Sondheim-meets-Tolstoy with occasional notes of A Chorus Line and Russian folk tunes, a synthesis that works remarkably well.

The central story is well told with a series of short but effected scenes that express the torment of the writer and misguided snobbery of the cultural context in which she works, where projects are dismissed and later fawned over by critics and professionals claiming a superiority over our hero. But the show has a strong message about the value of trusting your artistic instincts which is carried through into the representation of Sergei who scrutinises contracts, knows her worth and refuses to be overawed by colleague opinions.

Performed by just four unlisted actors, Sergei is a very likeable lead, capturing the self-doubts and frustrations that a career as a writer induces, but with a belief in her work that consistently runs through the show. The other three Curios members create the wider Russian literary society from eager actors to agents, critics, fellow writers and theatre managers, each distinctly drawn with a change of costume, body language and intonation while adding a comic tinge to balance out the darker Russian themes.

The Etcetera is a small space but vocally the performers hold back a little too often, creating a hesitancy in the vocal that could be more confident – the material is good, so let it shine. There is room for expansion here, perhaps as much as 30-minutes would help the show to graduate beyond the fringe to flesh out the secondary characters and explore more of Sergei’s development. It concludes with a meta question for the audience – is it alright to end without an ending? After 60-minutes of Black Snow, that is just fine; Curios Theatre have earned it.

Runs until 27 August 2021

Camden Fringe runs from 2 to 29 August 2021

The Reviews Hub Score

Very promising

The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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