by Meredith Jones Russell
There is a saying in Russian, ‘for a mad dog, seven miles is not a long detour’. This came vaguely to mind while watching Russian Roulette, in which veering wildly off course is basically the whole point.
We are nominally watching a staging of Chekhov’s The Seagull, but this version has a big twist. Every minute a siren goes off and a volunteer audience member spins a roulette wheel on which every number corresponds to a suitably Russian intervention; 36 options including A Fearsome Duel, Pussy Riot, A Sad Cossack Dance, A Marriage of Convenience, and Cholera. When this happens, the company must improvise around the random new element whilst theoretically remaining in the world of Trigorin, Konstantin, and – of course – a gun.
The result is, perhaps unsurprisingly, chaos. Every night is different but ours saw, among other mind-bogglingly bizarre events, Irina Arkadina transformed into a Russian doll and gradually shrinking as the play went on, all the cast forced to move around like chess pieces, a Soviet minister called Molotov arriving to fling his gasoline cocktail all over everyone, and SuperPutin, the president’s superhero alter ego, zooming around the room and trying to remove an audience member’s moustache.
It’s delightfully bonkers fun, thanks mostly to a quick-witted and intelligent cast who are able to think on their feet and use a tremendous mix of physical and verbal comedy to keep the piece going. Dominic Allen is particularly good as, on our night, Napoleon (he might be equally good staying in his original role as Trigorin in other performances – roulette wheel permitting). High-brow references are mixed with low-brow humour to hilarious effect (‘Maybe we should discuss who was worse; Bonaparte or Robespierre.’ ‘Oh, Robespierre. He was a massive prick.’).
A minor complaint would be that the flashing lights as the roulette wheel is spun make it close to impossible for the audience to consult their sheet of options, leading to a lot of phones lighting up. Just bringing up the house lights for a moment would help everyone, but it’s testament to the entertainment of the piece that no one’s attention seems to drift to their Whatsapps for too long.
Unpredictable, unruly and a good laugh, especially with a couple of vodkas, Russian Roulette is thoroughly worth taking a detour for.
Russian Roulette runs through 3 February.
The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.