The Drunks marks the opening salvo of Revolutions, a project which the Royal Shakespeare Company describes as its “four year celebration and exploration of theatre in Russia and the former Soviet Union”, but this commission from the Durnenkov Brothers doesn’t exactly get things off to the most auspicious of starts. The play feels like a conscious variation on Gogol’s The Government Inspector, except here, the prodigal figure is one of the unnamed town’s own sons, injured and shell-shocked and back from fighting on the frontline in Chechnya.
Ilya, played by Jonjo O’Neill, becomes the unwitting pawn in a grimly comic game of political one-upmanship, whilst trying to make sense of his own place in a world which seems to have moved on in his absence and changed beyond recognition. His wife Natasha has shacked up with another man and told his son that he is dead; former schoolmates Sergei and Kostya have respectively become a frightened journalist and a transsexual mayoral aide. Even his old schoolroom has become derelict and overgrown with ivy.
This sounds like the stuff of hard-edged political drama, and perhaps this is what the play may once have been, but between them, Anthony Neilson’s direction and Nina Raine’s script have transformed The Drunks into a rambunctious comedy, in which Ilya’s personal odyssey has been relegated to the status of a rather melodramatic sub-plot - a fact underscored by the curious decision to have O’Neill as the only performer to speak consistently in anything approaching a Russian accent.
Instead, attention (and directorial interest) seems to have been focused on the comic potential surrounding Brian Doherty’s monstrous Mayor and Darrell D'Silva’s weaponry-obsessed Chief of Police, both of them hard drinkers and profuse swearers, who are the lynchpins in a parade of scenes tricked out with moments of somewhat heavy-handed comedy.
Arguably, though, it is precisely this which redeems The Drunks, and as gratuitous as these moments often feel, it would take a hard heart not to laugh at some of the ludicrously absurd situations Neilson orchestrates: the magnificent murder of songs by Motorhead, Tammy Wynette and the B52s in a seedy vodka bar; a dignified lady in the audience nervously pressed into waving a Russian flag at Ilya’s homecoming parade; and D’Silva talking to his precious broadsword named Delilah, which speaks to him in delightful quivering music played on a saw by Jeff Moore.
It is difficult to avoid the suspicion that the writers’ Russian provenance has secured the development and presentation of a play which would never have seen the light of day if it had been the work of a British hand. The audience comes away little informed on the vagaries of Russian small-town politics, or anything else Russian for that matter, so in some sense, the enterprise must be deemed to have failed - but the guilty pleasure of a Russian-inflected riff on the final scene of Dirty Dancing will linger long in the mind.