Kate Lock’s new play Russian Dolls is definitely full of pluck and gall – as a look at modern day, working class, council flat Britain, it certainly captures the zeitgeist of its period and, as such, is a fitting winner of the 2015 Adrian Pagan Award. Over 60 minutes, the audience is treated to a hard-hitting, no-holds-barred look at the developing relationship between Camelia (Mollie Lambert) and Hilda (Stephanie Fayerman). The former is a 17-year-old girl, recently out of young offenders and trying to survive in a fractured world of gangs and broken families; the latter a recently blind retired woman who worked all her life as a foster carer to be left widowed and alone in her twilight years. Camelia (Lambert) breaks into Hilda’s (Fayerman) flat, looking to take advantage of the old woman and grab some easy cash to please her brother and his gang. So begins a relationship between the two that neither are expecting but both are secretly craving.

Under Hamish Macdougall’s direction, the play jumps between individual monologues and joint scenes with the two women. The former acts as a recitative, a filler in the storyline for the audience to add depth and colour to the resulting scenes. They show Camelia as a hard-done-by child, desperate for approval and love from her mother who is more interested in her boyfriend Troy. Equally fiery and resilient is Hilda – she spent her life fostering children only to be left alone until Camelia enters her life. Not one to complain though, Hilda is from the ‘make do and mend’ generation. The key to the success of this play lies entirely in the interaction between the actors – despite their confrontations, there is an endearing affection even from the first encounter. It has everything of a long-standing familial relationship: personality, emotion and most of all a deep-rooted sense of need for each other. This couple are made greater than the sum of their parts.

The storyline by Lock is successful because it is ultimately relatable. Whilst many of the audience may not have personal experience of drugs, gang violence or the foster system, Lock writes with tenderness and pathos. Everyone wants to be loved; everyone wants to feel safe and protected. The tough outer shell of Camelia is simply masking that which Hilda is also craving – companionship. But the real truth in this production is in its ending. This is not a fairytale; this is realistic. This is saying that sometimes it’s simply not enough; sometimes the cycle is destined to repeat, regardless of everyone’s efforts to break free. Some habits are just too engrained.

Russian Dolls is playing at the King’s Head Theatre until 23 April. For more information and future shows, see the King’s Head Theatre website. Photo: Andreas Grieger