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Stray Dogs by Olivia Olsen at Park Theatre | Review

Ian Redford (Joseph Stalin) - Credit Nick Rutter
Ian Redford (Joseph Stalin) – Credit Nick Rutter

Stray Dogs is a new three-handed full-length play by first-time playwright Olivia Olsen, and as such is a very creditable piece of writing, for a ‘student’ work.

It concerns the relationship that the Ukrainian poet Anna Akhmatova supposedly had both with the Russian British philosopher Isaiah Berlin and with Joseph Stalin, and, according to the production flyer, takes place in 1940, when in fact it clearly begins earlier and ends later. Both Anna’s legal and common law husbands (she also had several affairs whilst she was married) were executed on Stalin’s orders and her son was imprisoned for anti-Soviet activities.

Ms Olsen plays fast and loose with history! We are asked to believe that she met Berlin in the 1930s and he offered to help her flee the Soviet Union before the ‘Great Patriotic War’, whereas they first met only in 1945. We are also asked to believe that she had many meetings with Stalin, who wanted her to write Patriotic Poetry for the Soviet People, as well as help with his speeches.

In one scene, Stalin is listening to and comments on a gramophone recording of Shostakovitch’s second piano concerto, which was not actually composed until 1956/7, at least ten years later!

The play is constructed as a series of duologues, each of which is roughly the same length and the same sedate speed, rarely building to a climax. Each has Anna either talking to Stalin (did he really have the time to see her so much?) or to Berlin. Occasionally Stalin has a rant.

Ian Redford is convincing as Stalin, and in fact portrays the man in such a way that the audience has a great deal of sympathy for him, much more than for Anna, which may not be what the playwright intended. He blusters, but it is difficult to see from the writing what made him such a charismatic leader.

Ben Porter plays Berlin: this role seems underwritten, and indeed there is little motivation behind the lines he is given. However, Mr Porter makes this the most believable of the three characters in the play – perhaps because he is able to be English, rather than Russian.

The playwright herself plays the role of Anna. One can easily see why Stalin found her irritating! She is clearly NOT a dynamic or positive person, and one is surprised that she was able to write epic poems such as ‘Requiem’, a diatribe against Stalin’s purges. Here again history is altered, as this poem was actually written before the play is supposed to be set.

The highly experienced Robin Herford has had the very difficult task of directing the playwright in her own play; set design – a traverse stage littered with copies of Stalin’s speeches in English – is by Paul Colwell, and simple yet imaginative lighting is by Clancy Flynn.

By the way, ‘Stray Dogs’ was the name given to the group of artists, writers, composers etc who refused to toe the party line and produce what Stalin and the various committees thought was needed in order to stimulate the populace to give of their best in the next Five Year Plan!

2 gold stars

Review by John Groves

Russia. 1940. A land gripped by fear; where language is a weapon – where poetry is power.
Anna Akhmatova, the most celebrated poet of her generation, has lost her first husband to the purges and her son to state prison, where he awaits execution. Now, Stalin, the tyrant responsible for the murder of everyone close to her, wants a favour…

Plunged so far into obscurity she is believed to be dead, Anna is offered a renewal of life when the Russian/British philosopher Isaiah Berlin risks the hazards behind the iron curtain to find her. But in a world where poetry is a force that can control and move masses for good or ill, which side of the curtain will her loyalty lead her? How far will she go to save a life? How far will she go to save herself?

Based on true events, Stray Dogs depicts the story of one of the most extraordinary women of the 20th century, as she must choose between her duty to her son, her country, her art and herself. This urgent and relevant play explores the nature of tyranny and how it affects both the political landscape of the past and the present.
Dead Letter Perfect in association with Park Theatre present the World Premiere of

Stray Dogs
By Olivia Olsen
Directed by Robin Herford
Cast includes: Olivia Olsen, Ben Porter and Ian Redford.
Booking to 7th December 2019


  • John Groves

    John Groves studied singing with Robert Easton and conducting with Clive Timms. He was lucky enough to act in the British premiere of a Strindberg play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe more years ago than he cares to remember, as well as singing at the Royal Opera House - once! He taught drama and music at several schools, as well as examining the practical aspects of GCSE and A level drama for many years. For twenty five years he has conducted a brass band as well as living on one of the highest points of East Sussex surrounded by woodland, deer, foxes and badgers, with kites and buzzards flying overhead.

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