At one point in The Promise, Lika – the female protagonist and dramatic centre of Aleksei Arbuzov’s 1965 three-hander – sighs that she is not as heroic as she looks on paper. The play, in the same fashion, falls short of its paper credentials.
A colossal success in the USSR, The Promise was first seen on the British stage at the Oxford Playhouse in a version starring the impressive trio of Judi Dench, Ian McKellen and Ian McShane. In 2002 it was revived at the Tricycle in a new version by the ever-reliable Nick Dear; ten years later it comes to Trafalgar Studios in a new adaptation by Penelope Skinner, one of Britain’s most exciting and spirited young dramatists. There must be something about The Promise, one assumes, that has earned it such a distinguished theatrical history – it is not uncommon to see it referred to as a “lost classic”. And yet, the play itself stubbornly refuses to be anything of the kind.
At the heart of The Promise is a simple love triangle. During the gruesome carnage of the Siege of Leningrad, teenagers Lika, Marat and Leodinik struggle to survive in a cramped apartment. Their building is already full of corpses and Lika cannot remember a time when she was not hungry. In the fire of the siege, relationships are forged that will last forever – but only one of the men can have Lika.
The importance of Leningrad is seared into the play’s structure. The first half charts the pivotal siege, the second half its consequences. Regrettably, while the play is good on said siege, it is not so good on said consequences. In the first half, Skinner mines the period’s austerity for its pitch-black humour, but in a way that illuminates rather than trivialises. There is also genuine warmth as the central trio connect with each other. Here the production is its most confident: Joanna Vanderham’s wide-eyed, irrepressible Lika carries the story and, with its urgent atmosphere and raucous bombardment, it is no surprise that the play has the same associate director and sound designer as War Horse.
However, it is in the second half – which spans the years 1946 to 1960 – that The Promise’s fundamental mediocrity becomes clear. This act is largely concerned with the changing hopes and beliefs of the three characters – how the lucky survivors’ youthful dreams have squared up against hard reality. This stale theme lends itself to banality and, sure enough, despite Skinner’s insertion of some nice lines, not even her hand is enough to save Arbuzov’s dialogue from becoming a vehicle for corny platitudes. “On the eve of death, it isn’t too late to start one’s life from the beginning.” “We will triumph as long as we’re not afraid to be happy.” It is easy to see how these individualistic chestnuts can speak to an oppressed audience in a bureaucratised society – but for a contemporary Western audience, long assailed by the bromides of the self-actualisation movement, they sound uncomfortably close to the episode of Black Books in which Bill Bailey swallows The Little Book of Calm.
The Promise plays at the Trafalgar Studios until 8 December. For more information and tickets, see the Trafalgar Studios website.