A Russian war veteran and a Polish music student meet at a concert in Moscow and fall in love. A political edict in 1947 forbids marriage with foreign nationals and, ten years later, they meet in Warsaw.
By this time the Russian, who works in the wine trade, is married to a “good woman.” The student, poor thing, is a feted artiste now married to a music critic. Their love flickers hopelessly on but, after another ten years, it expires for lack of attention.
You can see why Leonid Zorin’s 1967 play – here translated by Franklin D Reeve — has been performed all over the world. It’s charming and poignant and full of Chopin piano music.
But the Arcola production by Oleg Mirochnikov falls flat as a Lenten pancake and goes on for ever without cutting very deep.
I suspect it’s a cultural thing. No disrespect to a pair of confident actors – Oliver King as the vintner Victor and Emily Tucker as the strenuously accented, impetuous Helya – but they pitch the piece too innocently, and miss by a mile the jagged stalking of the over-extended first act and the condensed emotional upheavals of the second.
They are acting in the wrong play, a soulless shadow of the original: it’s like watching Hugh Grant and Julie Walters when you’re imagining (or at least I was) Gerard Depardieu and Juliette Binoche. There’s too little yearning, not enough churning.
The couple’s final backstage encounter is at least dramatically gestured, with Helya embalming their affair in her face cream and leaving a dejected Victor a big loser.
Funnily enough, Agnes Treplin’s clever design in the smaller studio gives the play every chance, with its smoky sliding screens and vistas in silhouette creating a strong post-war atmosphere of the concert hall, city restaurants and Soviet bloc bookings.
But I found myself only looking forward to the next Chopin piece coming up on the soundtrack, and the show ends, suitably enough, with the gloomiest and most portentous of the Preludes.