There’s some inevitable and predictable humour in the generation gap between pensioner Hilda (Stephanie Fayerman) and teenager Camelia (Mollie Lambert). They do not talk the same, and they have strikingly different values, priorities and backgrounds. For example, Camelia doesn’t understand the concept of the milkman leaving bottles outside Hilda’s front door. “Da full ones will get nicked innit?” she ponders. I’m sure you get the picture already. A fiercely independent older lady comes up against a fiercely independent younger lady, and between them a gulf is eventually whittled down until what starts as a carer/patient transactional and stilted conversation becomes, after some time, a friendship of sorts.
If Russian Dolls is light (or, more accurately, unoriginal) in plot, it more than makes up for it in the intensity of Kate Lock’s writing, brought to life by an equally talented cast. The script, I have to say, is a delight to read, with Camelia’s lines written largely phonetically: “Like Leila an me we’re like eatin, at some big table, like puddins an dat, every day. Then we wash up and no one is bunkin off or flippin out at ya.” This sort of writing is not completely unprecedented – Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape being a case in point – but here, Lambert’s clear delivery makes it all easily comprehensible. Perhaps a London accent in a London theatre with a London audience helped, but from the off there was this palpable and vibrant sense of urgency in Camelia’s voice.
Camelia’s initial difficulty in literally getting her foot in the door as a metaphor for a struggle to make progress in life, and climb the social ladder, has been explored before, most notably in Willy Russell’s Educating Rita. Neither of these women, though, have any time for the philosophies and theories of the academic world, and there’s something highly refreshing about the directness of both characters. It’s not that the play lacks subtlety (it doesn’t), but their exchanges, while sometimes adversarial, were always sufficiently engaging to retain my attention.
With only the two characters on stage, and no playing of other parts, we only learn of the said other parts through the filter of Hilda and/or Camelia’s opinion. I was, initially, a little frustrated by that (though I may have been influenced by multiple character representation in a different show at the same venue that I saw on the same evening) but later, I came to realise how realistic this approach is. Even before I will have met someone, I will have been told about them and what someone I do already know thinks of them.
There’s much that is relatable in this play, at least broadly speaking, whether it’s Camelia’s frustration at (allegedly) being the last person in her family to find out what’s going on regarding important family matters, or Hilda no longer able to enjoy a favourite pastime, because substantial and sudden changes have been made to the way the group she’s in is run. Throughout, there’s an absorbing analysis embedded in the storyline of what the ‘right’ course of action is, for everything is relative, and there are wider consequences for any decision acted on. It ended too soon, plot-wise, and as the theatre’s lights came back up it left me wondering, “Okay, then what happened to them?” Nonetheless, it’s a very tight, thought-provoking and perceptive play, intelligently written.
Review by Chris Omaweng
RUSSIAN DOLLS by KATE LOCK
Seventy-something Hilda is blind and lives alone. Teenage tearaway Camelia is looking for her next mark. A singularly fierce friendship forms between these two women as they search for shared purpose in a broken Britain.
Based on the inspiring real-life story of Islington’s very own Hilda, Kate Lovk’s wise and witty new drama offers a fascinating insignt into the changing roles of women, the trappings of age and the worries of youth.
Russian Dolls was shortlisted for the Bruntwood Prize in 2013 before winning the Adrian Pagan award last year.
Book tickets for Russian Dolls
5th to 23rd April 2016