From the moment you step into the Albion Beatnik, a casual intimacy is established between the audience and the cast of The White Guard, who mingle seamlessly, at first proffering drinks, then slipping easily into character. The play centres around the bourgeois Turbin family and their friends, living in Kiev during the chaos of civil war in 1918. This brilliant production, directed by Jack Bradfield, captures the farce and the poignancy of this family’s attempt to maintain domestic normalcy in the face of a disintegrating society.
The play moves swiftly from romance and pure unadulterated hilarity to sadness and fear. We are first launched into the centre of the Turbins’ family life, giggling at the diss track brilliantly delivered by the youngest brother Nikolai (Alice Boyd) to his older brother Alexei (Laurence Belcher) in a familiar depiction of typical, bickering siblings. But with the arrival of the irreverent soldier Victor (Will Spence), fresh from combat, who thrusts his gloriously begrimed and frostbitten feet into the air (and into my face – audience participation is a must!), this comforting sense of domestic safety is dissolved: we realise this is a home in the midst of war. Later on, at a drunken dinner party, raucous singing and vodka guzzling is brought to a halt when Alexei, in an electric performance by Belcher, gives a moving speech about the horrors of the civil war, and how ludicrous their celebrations are in light of this. His words ring true when we later see him bleakly disbanding his soldiers, and witness some brutal violence. Shifts between scenes are not always as slick as they could be, but this is perhaps more of an issue with the original material of Bulgakov’s novel. Remy Oudemans’ lyrical soundscapes aid the impression of movement, and mournful harmonies evoke the grief that the characters struggle to articulate.
Imaginative staging turned the small interior of the Albion Beatnik into an inspired setting that particularly suited the play’s domestic scenes. With lights dotted around the bookshop, the set created an intimacy that couldn’t have been replicated in a larger venue, and even allowed the audience to sit around the dining table with the family. The cast is incredibly strong and work beautifully as an ensemble; their camaraderie and pure enjoyment in performing is palpable. Admittedly, some of the accents could be a tad patchy, but as the multi-role playing was excellent as a whole, this is perhaps pedantic. A key player is Jonny Wiles, who is at first a terse minister of war maintaining icy relations with his wife, but later features in a gorgeous cameo as a Matt Berry-esque Hetman, wrapped in silver chiffon. His interactions with the winsome Shervinsky (Finlay Stroud) were hilariously absurd, emphasising the incompetence of bureaucracy and the power struggles between Tsarist supporters. Additionally, Rosa Garland shines as the hapless cousin who arrives without notice, playing the dozy poet Larion in a glorious bit of gender blind casting, at which Bradfield excels.
The translation by Amy Perkis and Bradfield felt deliciously British and uncontrived, avoiding any clangers that can sometimes be found in attempts to translate Russian humour. Modern dress worked well, though some technological references to phones and laptops still jarred as the devices were only fleetingly used. However, this adaptation paid keen attention to the small details of grotesquery that are so rich in Bulgakov’s work, with an emphasis on the pungent toes of the frost bitten soldiers, the lip-smacking consumption of congealing food, and a bleeding forehead, all of which make the production a visceral treat. It is a real feat to create an environment where the cast are so comfortable with each other and the space, and this is a true testament to the production team. Above all, this is a play with beautifully drawn characters that are genuinely engaging. The dynamic shift from hilarity to aching sadness in the space of minutes feels very real, and I relished watching The White Guard. It’s exactly this sort of strikingly original and moving theatre that needs to be seen.