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Seeds – No Stone Theatre – Pleasance, London

There was a food bank in St Petersburg long before food banks were commonplace in the town centres of Britain, though the Pavlovsk Experimental Station, started in 1926 by Nikolai Vavilov (1887-1943) is more of an agricultural gene bank. Still operational today, the bank contains an unrivalled collection of various seeds – which is the main focus of the play (hence its title) but also plants of various foods in fields. This is because (without turning this review into an agricultural discourse written by a reviewer who lives in a city) certain varieties of foods do not, strictly speaking, originate from seeds, and therefore can’t, strictly speaking, be stored as seeds.

Seeds - No Stone TheatreVavilov, an off-stage character referred to in the play only as ‘The Director’, was the recipient (as the play would have it) of assistance from fellow scientists, particularly botanists, from all over the world. The production follows a trend in contemporary plays to ‘time hop’ between generations. A young lady known only as The Patient (Fanta Barrie). There are no on-stage nurses or consultants, for reasons made clear in the play, and she is notably speaking from a perspective some decades after World War Two, but not quite in the present day. If it were, she’d probably have a smartphone on her person, with regular updates on her whereabouts and activities posted on social media.

In the Second World War, meanwhile, Irina (Katy Stephens) is the de facto leader, in the absence of The Director, of the seed bank. The audience is quickly introduced by Zasha (Hannah Hutch), a violinist who is out of work (because, y’know, there’s a war on) and so applies to the institute (my choice of description) as most other possible applicants have either fled or died, because of the Siege of Leningrad (1941-1944). Dimitri (Graeme Rose) is suspicious, repeatedly asking why Zasha has chosen to work there, even after she has answered his question. When he becomes circumspect about his own movements after work one evening, more seeds, so to speak, of suspicion are sown, albeit in his proverbial field, and it’s hardly a surprise when it transpires that he’s not exactly above reproach himself.

Completing the set of on-stage characters is Leonid (Ray Sesay) – let’s just say he makes quite an entrance. Another employee at the seed bank, Leonid, despite his declining health, proves instrumental to the work of the facility. Whatever parallels there may be between ‘then’ and ‘now’ (or, rather, ‘later’) are teased out by The Patient, who is prone to detailed descriptions of her circumstances and surroundings, perhaps a legacy from the production’s earlier incarnation as a lockdown podcast. It’s a holistic narrative, stretching to a convincing inclusion of a performance by the very same symphony orchestra Zasha used to be a member of (the Leningrad Radio Orchestra really did perform a concert in August 1942, broadcast on loudspeakers in various places), as well as what had happened to the Hotel Astoria, close to the seed bank.

One of those ninety-minute, no-interval productions, the story ebbs and flows, and I’m not persuaded the role of The Patient was wholly necessary – the survival of the seed bank during the siege, even if a number of its staff did not live to see Leningrad (as it was then) liberated, is extraordinary in itself without a contemporary embellishment. The Pleasance Theatre’s main stage seemed somewhat too large for the production, and while talk of war and food shortages occasionally felt uncomfortably close to current affairs at the time of writing, the behaviours of the characters were always highly plausible. In context, what might have been melodrama elsewhere made sense in this curious and complex story.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

This is the sound of seeds falling on the floor. This is the bounce. This is the clatter. This is the terrible noise of them. The noise of a thousand years. The noise of a million harvests. The noise of a billion stomachs fed.

Four research scientists are freezing in the basement of the Institute of Plant Industry, forced to make impossible choices to protect life-saving seed samples against an invading army, a starving population and each other.

Under siege and with hope vanishing around them, how do they preserve what matters most and find hope for our shared future?

The Patient: Fanta Barrie
Irina: Katy Stephens
Zasha: Hannah Hutch
Leonid: Ray Sesay
Dimitri: Graeme Rose

Developed & Directed by Nicholas Pitt
Original Text: Nick Walker
Adapted Text: Tabitha Mortiboy
Producer: Johanna Taylor
Casting Director: Emily Jones
Set & Costume Designer: Lulu Tam
Composer & Sound Designer: Jon Ouin
Associate Sound Designer: Joseff Harris
Lighting & Video Designer: Martha Godfrey
Movement Director: Jennifer Fletcher
Stage Manager: Chloe Ashley
Assistant Producer: Alma Daskalaki

No Stone Theatre
1st Nov 2022 – 4th Nov 2022
Main House Cabaret – Pleasance London
Suitable for ages 12 and above

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