Burnt by the Sun

AMI JONES finds this play just little bit too Muller-lite.

ADC Theatre, 15th-19th May, 7.45pm, £6-10

Directed by Hugh Wyld

[rating: 3/5]

There’s a reason drama is generally dramatic. As last night’s performance of Burnt by the Sun evidenced, happiness – contrary to expectations – is by far one of the hardest emotions to portray onstage. Rather poignantly, the pursuit of conveying happiness usually ends up reduced to happy-film-montages flashing by before the real actions starts, or wrapped up with ribbons onstage as musicals or pantomimes.

So I have much sympathy for the cast and crew, who faced the challenge of pulling off an entire act of pretty much the most sticky-gooey-shiny sort of happiness you can get. A broad-shouldered and beaming Soviet war hero, Kotov (Saul Boyer), his pretty young wife Maroussia (Charlotte Hamblin), their honey-blonde pigtail-ed daughter (adorably played by what I presume is some locally-sourced kiddie) and their charming assortment of cuddly grannies spend a gorgeous and well-pampered summer wearing lots of white linen.

In the long slug towards dramatic conflict, the cast resorted to a variety of methods to keep things exciting – most off-putting was an odd pantomime-ish quality which hung over the beginning. Lines had a strangely hollow quality in their delivery, and though the script isn’t particularly written to include punchlines, actors did goofy things for laughs, furthering the weird pantomime effect. The slightly awkward, academic feel of the translation didn’t particularly help either. And although we had a stage of seasoned Cambridge actors, there seemed as well to be odd problems with volume and projection. Maybe it was just that some of the sound cues were blared so loudly we were deafened, but nonetheless it did feel a little like actors were shouting rather than projecting a lot of lines.

A drama which starts out in a Müller yoghurt advert needs an unnerving tension, a sense that all is not quite right – otherwise we may as well by watching a Müller yoghurt advert. We do find a few tidbits, but Wyld doesn’t seem to find the conviction to make them really punch through the cozy atmosphere. Kotov expresses some discontent with the remnants of his wife’s bourgeois family for reminiscing a little too fondly about the pre-Soviet days, but Boyer doesn’t quite manage to shake off the drowsy blanket of pantomime-cheeriness to pull it off.

When drama finally does arrive in the form of Will Attenborough as Mitia, an ex-lover of Maroussia disappeared for eleven years, the transition is bumpy and uncomfortable. Hamblin’s distress at the sudden appearance of her childhood sweetheart clashes with the cheery obliviousness with which the rest of the household simply accepts his return after eleven freaking years of silence. The final scenes of hardcore, proper guns-and-politics drama are played with far more ease and confidence, but still feel disjointed – though in this regard it seems to me that the script itself is pretty choppy, so who’s responsible for what isn’t always clear.

It’s a fiddly play to direct in your first foray, and it feels to me like debut director Wyld was just given more to handle than was fair with an exam-term ADC mainshow slot as well. With a few more plays under his belt, Wyld could very well be generating some slick, punchy drama – and I hope he does.

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