Review: Donkey Heart, Old Red Lion

“This has been going on for years…we never put it right, it just repeats.”

Mere mortals don’t stand a chance without a dynasty behind them... Moses Raine’s father is noted poet Craig and his sister is playwright and director Nina (who looked into my very soul with the peerless Tribes) and not only that, his mother, who has her own literary career, is the niece of Boris Pasternak who wrote Doctor Zhivago. And it is to the Russian connection that Moses has turned to write his new play Donkey Heart, directed by Nina, which opens at the Old Red Lion with one of the best casts you could hope to see in any intimate theatre, never mind one perched atop an Islington pub.

Casting director Emily Jones definitely deserves mention for gathering such an illustrious company on the fringe – such experience as Wendy Nottingham and Patrick Godfrey, the younger talents of Emily Bruni and James Musgrave and emerging with one of the performances of the year so far, Lisa Diveney, She plays Sasha, the 20-something daughter of a Moscow family, three generations of which are compressed into a small apartment, along with a British visitor Thomas, her brother’s mouthy girlfriend and her father’s PA whose been stung by her landlord.

In their crowded living room, meticulously dressed in James Turner’s impeccably detailed design (right down to the cereal boxes and shopping bags), they bicker over petty quarrels and skirt around the bigger issues at hand. For though the end of Communism promised dramatic change, the realities of modern Russia don’t necessarily feel so different. Government employees still harbour secrets, state-controlled central heating doesn’t come on until October no matter the temperature and memories of KGB surveillance and disappearances still burn fiercely.

Raine, N. directs with a clear-sighted vision which keeps a flowing energy throughout the piece which cleverly uses the corridors around the intimate stage to suggest the claustrophobia of this living arrangement. And Raine, M. combines the political with the personal beautifully, never better than when Godfrey’s Alexander explains to Alex Large’s blithely unaware Thomas exactly why his ironic Soviet logo t-shirt is anything but. It’s an aching piece of writing that speaks from the heart, encapsulating both the mess that Russia was and has still been left in by self-serving administrations. 

Diveney's Sasha best represents this frustration, her generation feeling the pain perhaps the most as what once looked like a bright future grows ever dimmer. She also masters the linguistic challenge of the play excellently - when the Russians speak to each other they have no accent but when they speak English to Thomas it is with a heavy Russian inflection, a simple device but one which works wonders in Diveney's talented hands. Alongside her, Nottingham's stoic mother, Musgrave's draft-dodging Petya and Bruni's enigmatic Natalia also impress in a clever, funny (finally, a great Facebook joke) and moving piece of drama. Book now.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes (with interval)
Playtext cost: £4
Booking until 31st May

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