For many, young adulthood is a period of hard-hitting reality, in which we must face the realisation that our long-held dreams have somehow dissipated into a purgatory with no obvious direction. Vassily Sigarev’s Russian play Ladybird, translated into English by Sasha Dugdale and currently playing at the New Diorama Theatre, tells the compelling story of young adults coping with their own personal dystopias. The play is performed by a newly formed theatre ensemble called secret/heart, a group that consists entirely of recent graduates of UK drama schools.
Set in the 1990s in a provincial Russian city still suffering from the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, Ladybird centres on young Dima, who is spending his last night at home before leaving for the army. He’s kept company by Slavik, a drug-addicted burnout; Lera, whose unremitting and unrealistic plans for a better future are bordering on manic; and Yulka, whose privileged lifestyle and college education make her stand out sharply against the rest of the gritty bunch. As new characters are introduced and tensions rise, it doesn’t take long for the evening to turn into a series of escalating dramas. These successfully grasp the audience’s attention, but sometimes feel contrived.
Dima (Charlie Archer) and Lera (Bethan Cullinane) provide the most interesting and dynamic relationship in Sigarev’s play. Lera’s desperate optimism and Dima’s defeated cynicism are constantly clashing, but the two end up sharing the most powerful connection. Archer and Cullinane both master their complex roles with a combination of humour and tragedy, and have a natural chemistry that builds throughout the night. But while these two are strong, the script often fails to provide the supporting characters with substance. Lera’s cousin Yulka, despite being well acted by Molly Gromadzki, is particularly problematic, with a shocking personality shift in the second act that adds a heightened drama at the expense of the character’s believability.
Seb Harcombe’s direction keeps the play moving at a steady pace and with a natural flow. Nicolai Hart Hansen’s design of the dilapidated flat enhances the atmosphere of emptiness and discomfort that is felt throughout the play. Against the back wall is a large print of a forest with beams of light shining through, and although the symbolism of this wasn’t clear, it provides an attractive contrast to its intentionally ugly surroundings.
Regardless of the flaws in the material, Ladybird remains consistently captivating. The moments of dark humour, unpredictable plot developments, well-written dialogue, great performances and thoughtful direction greatly outweigh the play’s problems. Secret/heart’s production excellently showcases young British talent while delivering a story that is both entertaining and relevant, and ultimately provides a refreshing night at the theatre.
Ladybird is playing at the New Diorama Theatre until 22 December. For tickets and more information, visit the New Diorama Theatre’s website.