Review: A Warsaw Melody

This love story begins in December 1946. It is Russia and World War Two, although finished, lurks in minds and hearts. Victor, a young man for whom life has so far been only school and army, meets Helya, a Polish music student studying at the Conservatoire. Helya is glamourous, vivacious, self-assured. Victor is earnest, inexperienced in love and captivated by the brio of this extrovert and beautiful Polish girl. As Helya considers Victor’s proposal of marriage, the political winds change direction – Russia is not on their side. A new law is passed, forbidding marriage between Russians and non-Russians. Can Helya and Victor’s relationship survive?

At the Arcola Theatre, Belka Productions’ UK premiere of Leonid Zorin’s love-against-the-odds tale is played on Agnes Treplin’s elegant and flexible set. Hanging window panels slide swiftly, moving us from concert hall to street, phone box to apartment. Lighting (Howard Hudson) and sound (Michael Umney) are similarly understated, yet effective. Both characters are well cast and give assured performances. Emily Tucker’s Polish accent did not falter and at least had my (admittedly untrained when it comes to Polish accents) ear fooled. Oliver King as the naïve Victor maintained just enough underlying tension to keep his character interesting.

A Warsaw Melody was incredibly popular in its time – it was written in the ’60s – with 4,000 performances in its first year. Despite being well-known across Russi,a this is the first time the piece has been seen on a British stage (rumours of a ’70s production at the King’s Head Theatre cannot be confirmed), and for that it is worth seeing. The performance moves at a good pace and the relationship between the characters is developed nicely, crucial in a dialogue-heavy two-hander.

The action moves from Russia to Poland and back to Russia, and through the years from 1946 to the 1960s. As the trauma of the world’s largest-scale war fades, other concerns move in. The focus on the characters’ careers and relationships takes the story from the political to the personal, from youth to middle age. At the beginning it is all love story, ebullient with only the faintest tinge of shadow. The second half deals with the weight of the world and facing the future as an adult, with making mistakes but moving on – marriages fail, careers make demands but the world continues. The shift in tone is most noticeable in the ending, where we slide suddenly into melodramatic symbolism, culminating in an interpretive dance and what seems to be highly meaningful paper-dropping. Realism to symbolism in one fell swoop left me a little confused, I must admit, and meant the end came without the romantic denouement and clarity I had expected.

Although the styles of the start and end seemed an unusual combination, director Oleg Mirochnikov’s piece is sparse but elegant; if Belka Productions follow their stated aim and stage more little-known Russian works, they will be ones to watch for the future.

A Warsaw Melody is playing at the Arcola Theatre until 28 April. For more information and tickets, see the Arcola Theatre website.