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Donkey Heart (Old Red Lion)

Nina Raine directs her brother Moses' Russia-set drama tracing the legacy of communism

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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'Constant buzz of energy': The cast of Donkey Heart
© Francis Loney

Donkey Heart used to be a Canadian indie rock band who leapt around the place with their clothes off, but now it's a new play about a fractious family cooped up in a contemporary Moscow flat with only their nerves exposed.

Moses Raine is the younger brother of Nina Raine, whose playwriting career took off big time in this same small venue, and she's pretty good at family squabbles, too; now she directs little Mo's domestic pressure cooker, where everyone's under some sort of surveillance and memories of the siege of Leningrad and pre-glasnost state suppression are fashionable again in the Putin era and collapsing economy.

Not an awful lot happens, but there's a constant buzz of energy about the play, which is full-length and well-structured, and reeks of something authentic and informative about modern Moscow, where the catalytic figure of an English guest, Thomas (Alex Large), is trying to make headway with Sasha (Lisa Diveney) whose younger brother Petya (James Musgrave) is a gay draft-dodger.

Sasha talks to Tom (and no-one else) in a Russian accent - a nice variation on the Brian Friel trick in Translations - and says striking things like "all night an ambulance wailed in my soul," and "this is fifth year I try and brainwash donkey heart"… mmm, yes, me too, but she's trying to explain her love affair with an older man in Paris. Tom, feeling distant, scores one back: "I'm bouncing my love off the moon to you."

Sasha's mother Zhenya (mouse-like Wendy Nottingham, snivelling sternly and almost beating Lesley Manville at her own Ghosts game) is being sorely tested by closed-up adulterous husband Ivan (Paul Wyett) who works in "state finance" and locks his heart along with his computer.

Head of the family is Alexander - played marvellously, with a rackety, seen-it-all, red-nosed whiskery flamboyance by 81 year-old RSC veteran Patrick Godfrey - who suggests that his son, Ivan, should see prostitutes rather than endure any more of the family therapy session. Things have come to a head, so to speak, with yet more over-crowding in the apartment and the discovery of an alien thong in Tom's bed; it's not Sasha's.

Other participants in the love and hardship game are a ten year-old boy (neatly done by Pierre Atri, who alternates as Kolya with Albie Marber, son of Patrick), Petya's sullen, sluttish girlfriend, Clara (Georgia Henshaw), and an enigmatic employee at Ivan's office, Natalia, whom Emily Bruni projects with an exhausted, sexy, fascinating resignation way beyond the slightly under-written role provided. Intriguing stuff.