It’s hard not to be struck by the ironic luxury of witnessing a West End play about Russian politics, as the war continues to rage in Ukraine. The collapse of the Kakhova dam means that up to 42,000 Ukrainians are being displaced while I sip on Aperol spritz outside the Noel Coward theatre. Russian hackers are being blamed for a massive cyber-attack that’s screwed the BBC, Boots and British Airways. There are fears that Putin may bomb the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, but al fresco revellers at The Salisbury on St. Martin’s Lane appear untroubled at the prospect. Life, and the show, must go on.
Peter Morgan’s Patriots arrives with such pedigree at its helm that it’s hard not to be dazzled by the prospect. Morgan is responsible for The Queen and Frost/Nixon on both stage and screen. Critical acclaim and awards came flooding in for those productions, but he is also the creator and showrunner of The Crown, which debuted on Netflix in 2016. You may have heard of it.
Director Rupert Goold is Artistic Director of the Almeida Theatre and has received Olivier, Critics’ Circle and Evening Standard awards for Best Director twice. His production of Medea at the Almeida was so good, I’d have retired after that, but Goold goes on giving.
Patriots examines the double-edged sword of Gorbachev’s perestroika which ultimately enabled oligarchs to manifest a mafia economy. This giant criminal casino led to Putin’s unexpected rise from twitchy no-mark to ruthless dictator. Morgan’s focus is on Boris Berezovsky, the OG of oligarchs, who created the Unity party with the sole aim of putting Putin in power. He was a puffed-up puppet master who got punched by his puppet.
Berezovsky is played with impressive gusto by Tom Hollander who can’t help but lend charm to this epic hustler. We watch Berezovsky as a boy, abandon mathematical academia for shifty corporate greed, then lose the lot ‘cause he underestimated Putin’s quiet rage and ambition.
The gaudy glam of the set, somewhere between a pole dancing club and a chintzy embassy is spot on. Clocking in at 2 hours and 40 minutes, it cracks along with few sags, but may not feel that way for those who aren’t gripped by the history and politics of Russia. Patriots is entertaining, informative and perhaps, overly ambitious, but it serves as a high-end refresher course in how we got to where we are. Also, Will Keen as Vladimir Putin is sensational. He is a thrilling menace to behold and Keen nails the subtle evolution from awkward provincial official to awkward, but vengeful ruler. Grim electricity seems to crackle from the stage whenever Keen sets foot on it. The Olivier he won for this role is well deserved.
Patriots shows Roman Abramovich (Luke Thallon) as a wide-eyed (millionaire) kid who does business with both Berezovsky and Putin, but somehow emerges alive, rich and in subsequent legal battles, utterly victorious. Josef Davies plays Alexander Litvinenko, ex-KGB agent, bold whistle blower, and bodyguard to Berezovsky. Litvinenko was poisoned with polonium in 2006 while exiled in the UK and this play goes some way to explaining that tragic demise.
Rather like The Crown, it’s hard not to question the details of history being presented, but to give Morgan his credit, the narrative checks out, even if he’s taken creative liberties with the dialogue. We’ll never REALLY know what Putin said to Abramovich, just like we’ll never ACTUALLY know what the Queen said to Margaret Thatcher. Historians may quibble, but that’s the magic of theatre.
Patriots is at the Noel Coward Theatre until 19th August 2023, www.noelcowardtheatre.co.uk
Reviewer: Stewart Who?
Reviewed: 6th June 2023
North West End UK Rating: