Russian Dolls, King’s Head Theatre

Russian Dolls at King's Head Theatre, Stephanie Fayerman and Mollie Lambert_1 © Andreas Grieger

Camelia’s just got out of young offenders’ but her mum never turned up to collect her, so she’s back to looking after herself. Hilda is a blind elderly woman fending of her goddaughter’s attempts to move her to Basingstoke. When Camelia robs Hilda after tricking into believing she’s covering for her carer, the two end up influencing each other much more than ever expected. Kate Lock’s Russian Dolls tells the fraught story of an unlikely dependency that is doomed to end badly for both women. Lock’s characters are fantastic, and their scenes together are tense and charged with moments of genuine tenderness. In between the scenes are narrative monologues that, whilst providing necessary information, are awkwardly addressed to the ether and disrupt the story’s momentum.

Stephanie Fayerman as Hilda and Mollie Lambert as Camelia are a volatile pair. The energy between them is either stormy or potentially so; the tension makes them wonderfully watchable. Their few scenes of relaxed openness towards the other are fleeting, but hugely rewarding and loaded with tough love. Both performances are excellent, and the dependency on the other is great to watch.

There is no sentimentality towards young people, the care system or aging in Lock’s script. The lack of happy ending is a touch disappointing, but it’s accurate. The stories of young people from broken homes actually managing to turn their lives around are rare considering the 69,540 young people in care as of March last year. Every now and again an “inspiring” case hits the news, but for the majority of these children, their lives are part of an endless cycle of poverty, abuse, drugs and jail time. Well done to Lock for not going the easy route with her narrative.

Structurally, the script is quite simple and there are large, frustrating chronological jumps that skips huge sections of both characters’ emotional journeys. This could easily be a full length, two-act play and would work very well as such. Provided the current ending is kept, a 2 hour or so build up would make it all the more devastating.

Russian Dolls, winner of the Adrian Pagan Award and shortlisted for the Bruntwood Prize, is a bolshy play full of life in all of its glorious imperfections. It’s an honest look at the care system and its flaws, but the actors’ characterization and electric relationship is the highlight of this new play.

Russian Dolls runs through 23 April.

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