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London Theatre Reviews

Theo Barklem Biggs and Billy Howle/ Ph: Marc Brenner

DISTORTED IDEALS

By CLAIRE ALLFREE

With this revival, Michael Longhurst is off to an explosive start as the Donmar's new artistic director.

A train station somewhere in Eastern Europe where the trains no longer stop. A man and his daughter from somewhere else who simply want a place to sleep. An irascible stationmaster who can't understand why anyone would linger in a station when there are no trains to take them away. And a local youth population, becoming dangerously restless on a tinderbox combination of no jobs, no prospects and no sense they belong anywhere at all.
 
David Greig's play was written 25 years ago amid the glowing embers of the Yugoslav war and a couple of years after the signing of the Maastricht Treaty that founded the European Union, in February 1992. It's a clever stroke by Michael Longhurst to revive it as his inaugural production as the Donmar's new artistic director, and not only because Britain's relationship with Europe, distorted beyond recognition by politically expedient career politicians, has become a national crisis. Greig's play cleverly intuits the rise of right-wing populism in Europe, born aloft on a growing tide of economic deprivation and ideological disenfranchisement. “A continent that works for everyone” could have been the European project's unofficial slogan, yet these days it would sound as hopelessly idealistic as a similar slogan sounded coming from the mouth of Theresa May. People need a practical reason to put their faith in a beautiful idea.
 
Longhurst is a showman director and lends his large-scale visual flair to great effect here, with a split-level stage by Chloe Lamford that provides a viewing platform for distant horizons stretching beyond for young Adele, Faye Marsay's restless, unhappily married station assistant, who dreams of visiting Prague, Milan, Strasbourg. So when Katia and her father Sava, both refugees from an unspecified conflict, wash up on her platform, lovingly furnished by Adele and Ron Cook's fabulously petty stationmaster with pot plants, and start brewing tea, Adele spies an opportunity. Her husband, Berlin, who, like Adele, has lost his job following news of the station's imminent closure, by contrast feels only a volatile desperation. His mates, equally adrift in a one-horse town that contains one bar and precisely no factories, think the foreigners are to blame for the fact there is no work. One of them leaves on a bus. The others start planning their revenge.
 
Greig can sometimes be a preachy, bloodless writer, but Longhurst floods his production with the tastes of longing and despair. Marsay is terrific as Adele, a lonely, hungry adventuress who throws herself into a relationship with Katia with fiery optimism as well as sexual fervour. Her emotionally blunt-headed husband (Billy Howle), meanwhile, longs to reignite the connection they once shared. The town hooligan, fascist in all but name, longs to have a stake in something, to feel he belongs. Yet he and Berlin also know that Europe cares not a fig for them. To them the E.U. cares only for open borders and in the free passage of peoples, not for those who cannot leave.
 
The image of a skinhead beating up a foreigner may be a potent and resonant one, but it also feels reductive in the context of Europe's long and complicated history of nationalism. In Britain, for instance, there is a very strong middle-class resistance to the principle of European integration that has nothing to do with economic deprivation but is rooted instead in more complex myths and delusions of sovereignty and nativism. Greig's play is less interested in these arguments than he is in a series of poetic conceits that expose the hollowness felt by many to exist at the heart of the European ideal – a defunct station; the notion of free trade as a sort of conjuring trick, as exemplified by Shane Zaza's slippery travelling businessman Morocco. Yet as a prophetic portrait of where we are now, it offers a sober warning – and provides Longhurst with an explosive start to his new tenure at the Donmar.