2014 is the centenary of the birth of Azerbaijani playwright Ilyas Afandiye and in honour of this the Aloff Theatre Group is presenting his You’re Always With Me at the Lost Theatre in Wandsworth. I have to admit I’m not that au fait with Soviet era writers, apart from a caricature of long, dull plays involving boring dialogue and potatoes. Luckily, this show managed to break the stereotype in my head and provide me with 2 hours of thought provoking entertainment.
Starting on an empty stage, transformed into a railway station platform, we meet Hesenzade (Doug Devaney) a man in his 40s waving off his son while the life of the station progresses around him. We return with him to his flat where he talks to the spirit of his wife Khurshid (Helen Coles) and discusses whether he should have married again following her early death. Although he doesn’t realise it, the ringing of his doorbell is going to signal a major change in his existence. In comes Nergile (Stephanie Harte) a teenager on the brink of full blown adulthood with a hellish home life. Her father died in the war, and Nergile’s mother Nezaket (Zara Plessard) has subsequently married Faraj, a really nasty piece of work (a wonderfully creepy performance by Karl Niklas). The step-father is a bully and these days would be considered an abuser – if not physically, then certainly mentally – who is jealous of the love his wife shows to her daughter. It is obvious that both Hesenzade and Nergile are lonely and seeking some form of connection with another human being and this fuels a “May to December” relationship to the horror of Nergile’s mother and the amusement of her friends.
Whilst they are obviously extremely close, there is a suggestion that they view their relationship very differently. Although Nergile often treats Hesenzade in a “wifely” manner – cleaning his flat, arranging flowers, making him a drink when he gets home – it felt that Hesenzade looked on her initially only as a surrogate replacement for his son and this lead to some frank exchanges with Nergile’s birth mother. Hesenzade was not, however, oblivious to the feminine charms of his youthful ‘friend’ and the awareness of this took us to the play’s emotionally charged conclusion.
The programme describes the play as “A bittersweet romance, a pair, both lonely in their own ways, found themselves drawn to each other. As they form a bond that defies conventions, their relationship makes us ask whether love holds the answer to loneliness?” but in discussion afterwards, I did wonder if there was a deeper, more subversive, layer underneath. To me it felt that the play was an analogy of the Soviet era itself. You have Azerbaijan, (the mother) being bullied and suppressed by Soviet Russia (the step-father) while the next generation of dissidents (Nergile) try to build a relationship with the Western world (Hesenzade). It could be I’m over-thinking here but I did feel a sense of rebellion in the writing.
Thanks to some great direction by Filiz Ozcan, the cast make excellent use of the stage, moving furniture and other items around to change scenes, a kitchen becomes an office for example and I really loved the use of “helping hands” appearing at the back when practical props were needed. The incidental music and lighting were all perfectly synched with the action on stage and used to great effect to change and set the various locations in the play.
Ultimately the success of this show comes down to the writing and performing, neither of which could be faulted. The original play has been brilliantly translated by Sanan Aliyev and, on the acting front, Doug Devaney was wonderful as Hesenzade and has perfected the art of being perfectly still whilst the action moved in flashback to Nergile’s kitchen. Credit must also go to Karl Niklas’ amazing performance as both the menacing, on the edge of a violent explosion, step-father Faraj and Badal Farajov, the slightly camp and irritating Head of Personnel at the factory where Hesenzade (due to his position as Director) had got Nergile a job.
To end this review then I have one piece of advice. Forget everything you think you know about Soviet era writers, go see the real thing and be as amazed as I was.
Review by Terry Eastham
Aloff Theatre presents the European premiere of You’re Aways With Me. Written by Ilyas Afandiyev, translated by Sanan Aliyev, directed by Filiz Ozcan.
Dates: Tuesdays – Sundays / 12th – 27th September
Times: Tuesdays – Saturdays 19.30
Tickets: £10 (£8) Preview tickets £8 (£5)
Bookings: 0207 720 6897
The Lost Theatre 208 Wandsworth Rd, London SW8 2JU
Running Time: 100 mins with interval
Saturday 13th September 2014