Off the Ground Theatre’s The Drunks, directed by Dan Meigh, is a darkly comic political satire, exploring themes of incompetent politicians, mental health issues and the impact that self-interested motives can have on your relationships with the people around you. Utilising surreal comedy and loud, brash personalities, this story of a small Russian town mirrors the wider world overrun with fake news, bumbling politicians and forgetting your worries in a heavy and mindless binge drinking session.
The play opens with the ensemble cast entering in monochrome costumes and drinking greedily from silver hip flasks. The uniform effect of the costumes is dampened slightly by a pair of oxblood shoes worn by one of the actors as black shoes for all cast members would have emphasised the fixed fates of the characters more. The cast seamlessly transform from vodka swigging adults to an attentive class of children when Babitsky (Daniel G Cambridge) enters, an enthusiastic teacher whose primary focus is to teach the children to believe in themselves.
Babitsky focuses on Ilya (Connor Wray), who grows up and turns into a soldier before our eyes. Plastic screens, nodding towards the isolated and disconnected pandemic environment, are used to create the illusion of time passing and different environments, including vodka bars and a cramped, overcrowded sauna. Ilya’s journey through life is shown in a disorientating sped up style, and he is soon returning to his home town, recovering from a serious head injury and PTSD, pressured into partaking in the copious amounts of vodka everyone in the town is endlessly drinking.
Ilya’s homecoming soon turns into a nightmare of various inept politicians attempting to use their “town’s hero” for their own purposes. The Mayor (Mat Oliphant) is determined that Ilya will highlight the fantastic job he is doing as he stumbles around in a vodka daze often forgetting to even put on trousers. The Chief of Police, Kotomtsev (Bryony Thomas), has her own ambitions for the top job and wants Ilya to expose the Mayor for the incompetent buffoon he is and point out how her brand of sword wielding psychopathy could transform the town. Most tragically of all, Ilya’s school friends Sergey (Phil Rayner) and Kostya (Tom Martin), the editor of the local paper and Mayor’s aide respectively, also want Ilya to expose the corruption currently rife in the town and help them with their own takeover.
All Ilya wants is to go back to his wife, Natasha (Kathryn McGurk) and their young son, Ivan. Unfortunately Natasha has moved in with Nikolai, who is firmly in the role of stepfather, with Natasha not wanting Ilya to have anything to do with her or their young child.
No one wants Ilya for Ilya and the pressure to drink along with the rest of the town cannot be resisted for long when every step he takes only leads to another nightmarish situation. The town’s desperate need for him to be their hero they need to create their story is palpable and the hopelessness of his life is miserably wretched.
Wray’s portrayal of Ilya is very good as he stumbles from one awkward situation to the next with an understated depression and bewilderment that underlines his confusion over life at home and his repeated episodes of drunkenness.
Thomas has excellent presence as the bumbling Chief of Police and her sensual conversations with her weapons are equally disturbing and mesmerising. Oliphant’s Mayor is fantastic, with the inspiration for the portrayal being frighteningly obvious and terrifying accurate. He creates a number of laugh out loud moments which are also troubling in their manic realism. Junior Mujica, playing a number of smaller roles, stands out as for his excellent comic timing, strong stage presence and ability to morph into the various characters he portrays.
Lighting is cleverly used to create different atmospheres, from comforting yellow light creating a sense of home and safety, to stark, rapidly changing colours creating a sense of disorientation and drunkenness. There is a lot of high quality mime used to create props and scenery and the various bar fights are well choreographed and believable.
The plot is very surreal and the pace can be quite slow on occasion, meaning that the play, particularly considering its length of just over two hours, could and should have had an interval to break up the action. There were a number of places at the halfway point where an interval could have been added without disturbing the action of the piece.
The Drunks is an interesting piece of theatre which has worryingly become more relevant than ever. The sense of things going on hold for the winter and people hiding from an abundance of fake news and incompetent politicians at the bottom of a vodka bottle is both frightening and darkly comical. The sense of being stuck in an endless cycle of the same dead ends and hopeless situations is well exploited in the performance making this an interesting drama which will make you think about the world we’re living in and where we’re heading if things carry on as they are.
Reviewer: Donna M Day
Reviewed: 4th December 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★