Writer: David Storey
Director: Alice Hamilton
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
Until this year, theatre reviewers had to exercise caution when it came to writing about David Storey plays. Reliable rumour has it that back in 1976 Storey slapped The Guardian’s Michael Billington around the head after he had written a particularly sniffy review of Storey’s new play.
In fact, there’s very little wrong with The Orange Tree’s revival of Storey’s 1989 play The March on Russia, directed lovingly by Alice Hamilton. With such a title, and knowing that it is set in Yorkshire you would be forgiven for thinking that the play might chart the decline of socialism in Britain, or discuss the steady disillusionment in communism. But the march on Russia in this play happened at end of the First World War and is one of Tommy Pasmore’s fondest memories. His journey to Sebastopol and back, picking up refugees on his Royal Navy ship and dropping them off in Constantinople, is certainly more exciting and uplifting than the 50 years he spends down the mines on his return to Britain.
Now with pneumoconiosis, he and his wife spend their last days bickering in a bungalow not far from the sea with nothing much to look forward to, every day indistinguishable from the other, apart from Sundays when the milkman doesn’t deliver. Even on the day of their 60th marriage anniversary, the couple don’t seem too delighted when their son and two daughters arrive to celebrate their special day. While there is nothing new here about Storey’s plot as the family quarrel and reminisce in equal measure, and nothing new about the fallout of confessions and home truths, the elegiac tone perfectly captures the disappearance of a proud, self-sufficient, working-class generation.
Ian Gelder and Sue Wallace excel as Mr and Mrs Pasmore, and they inhabit the roles as if they, too, have been married for 60 years. The play is very funny in places and Wallace’s comic timing is spot on as she berates Tommy and the rest of the family, unaware, perhaps, that each of them has their own despair. Connie Walker, as the eldest daughter Eileen, is excellent too, carrying the burden of disappointment that she hasn’t been as successful as her sister, who is a local councillor, or her brother, who is working at a university In London. The portrayal of the brother, Colin, may be the only misstep in this production. Although he has shaken off his working-class roots, there’s something too haughty and distant about Colin Tierney’s performance.
The March on Russia is set in 1989, but James Perkins’ simple arrangement of chairs and tables evokes an amalgamation of earlier decades, and a steaming kettle and a real gas fire add some realism to the family scenes. Above them, projected on a fibreglass trapezium, clouds rush past signifying that time is passing for the elderly couple. Perhaps the march on Russia is a metaphor for the march on old age?
While nothing much happens in this play, The March on Russia is a moving distillation of regret and hopelessness as traditions and virtues evaporate in the modern world. However, it never becomes too depressing, especially with Gelder and Wallace on the stage. Their formidable partnership lights a beacon for their characters’ last days.
Runs until 7 October 2017 | Image: Helen Maybanks