The Family @ Hackney Empire, London

cast list
Olga Eliseeva
Alexander Gusarov
Kasyan Rykvin
Marina Makhavea
Elena Sadkova
Ekaterina Dorichenko

directed by
Boris Petruschanksy
The legendary St Petersburg clown company Licedei brings its latest production, ‘The Family’, to the Hackney Empire – cheerfully putting a bright and outsized boot through my long-standing antipathy to physical theatre.

I’d feared sitting in baffled silence while all around me were hoots of laughter: only ever really comfortable with the written word, and if pressed to it the spoken, I was grimly certain that a story told through expression and gesture would leave me decidedly chilly.

Perhaps by now I should know that my first instincts are invariably crushingly ill-conceived, since within five minutes of mostly silent clowning I felt wholly at home. The production is the tale of family described in the promotional literature as ‘dysfunctional’, but which seemed to me (sister of four, and aunt to nine) not especially more mad-cap than many or most.

The mother, played by Olga Eliseeva, is heavily pregnant and gleefully flirtatious, when she finds the time keeping her three children fearsomely in hand. Kasyan Rykvin seemed to me all one could wish for in a brother: he’s mischievous to the point of malicious, but charming with it, skittish as a cat in a thunderstorm. Alexander Gusarov as the father is downtrodden and vodka-sodden, if he can possibly manage it: threatening to leave with every other breath, he’s invariably seduced back to the hearth by his irrepressible offspring and unapologetically alluring wife. Elena Sadkova and Ekaterina Dorichenko are less memorable as the sister and the baby, but play their parts effectively enough.

There is no substantive story-arc, the play being largely a string of sketches that serve to paint the characters and dynamics of the family, but the father’s repeated despairing threats to leave his mournful putting-on of hat and coat and doleful walk away from the front door – are pathetic enough for his final return to be genuinely moving. The performances combine ecstatic exaggerations of natural facial expressions with accomplished prat-falling that left the excessively polite Russian children beside me very nearly ill with laughter. There are some complex set-pieces, but the play succeeds most when simplest: I’m afraid I gasped with decidedly infantile joy when the brother took a piece of chalk and, to a perfectly synchronised soundtrack controlled by some genius in a hidden room, ‘drew’ sums and spirited graffiti on an invisible blackboard.

The set design is appropriately surreal, and there are one or two moments that summon up a dozen lingering nightmares, and are remarkably chilling in this benevolent context. The choice of accompanying music is eccentric to say the least, and delightful to say the most: it veers giddily between what I believe is known as ‘drum ‘n’ bass’ to some gloriously cheesy French blues.

I do not claim to be converted to clowning and mime. The Licedei has a long and noble tradition, and having survived the displeasure of the Communist regime was always unlikely to be dampened by my frowns. But frowns there were none: this production is ecstatically cheerful, but more importantly is driven by a superbly compassionate and optimistic spirit. It manages wordlessly to insist that families, however eccentric in size and shape, will inevitably return to happy disordered comfort at the dinner table, a theory that for the length of the play -and some time after – I believed with all my heart.

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