Although not as well known the plays of Maxim Gorky are well worth seeking out. Perhaps the best way to think of him is like Chekhov but with teeth. He had an extraordinary life, often penniless and starving he also rose to be a celebrated thinker and an active part of the Russian revolution. His plots and characters reflect every aspect of his life, from the struggles of ordinary workers to the musings of the intelligentsia. But there's no wafting around in his urgent gripping dramas populated by vivid heroes, martyrs and monsters.
He had a harsh childhood of loss and abandonment and pours all his venom and cynicism into a number of plays examining the cruelty of overbearing parents. Currently playing at the Jermyn Street Theatre is Anthony Bigg's very welcome revival of perhaps his most extreme depiction of family life THE LAST ONES, in which a domestic set-up mirrors the violence, prejudice and chaos of life on the streets of crisis torn Russian during the years of revolution.
A retired police chief bullies, terrorises and lashes out at his household. He is a complete ogre even taking a lascivious interest in his daughter. With the prospect of a new police commission he'll need money to bribe his way to the top and the family are penniless, reliant on the generosity of his brother. But this benign relative has had enough. Will the ranting patriarch manage to bully the necessary cash out of him?
It's a pretty thin plot with various secondary stories bolted on which show his family in an equally unflattering light. They've all had to become manipulative and selfish in order to survive. Collectively they're a horrible bunch and it's impossible to sympathise with anyone. Imagine being trapped in a room with the neighbours from Hell.
That's exactly the feeling this production gives you. The tiny theatre has been brilliantly reconfigured by the director so the audience is banked around a chamber of family horrors that clever designer Daragh O’Malley has dressed to look like it's made of rusted aluminium, the commodity with which the brother made his money.
The cast all do a great job, the trouble is that Gorky or translator Cathy Porter never allows them any of the sly wit which can make unpleasant characters fun to watch. When the elderly servant wishes everyone would stop yelling at each other it's hard not to agree.
Daragh O’Malley does a great job of portraying the monstrous father and never lets up on the snarling animosity. I wonder if it might have been interesting to have more moments when he's pleased with the power he exerts or even believes he's working in everyone's interest.
As it is it's a gruelling two hours of watching rats fighting in a sack, through a series of ghoulishly horrible melodramatic lurches.
You won't forget it in a hurry!