Theatre review: Larisa and the Merchants, Arcola Theatre, E8

Jennifer Kidd as Larisa and Sam Philips as Sergei Paratov in Larisa and the Merchants by Alexander O

Jennifer Kidd as Larisa and Sam Philips as Sergei Paratov in Larisa and the Merchants by Alexander Ostrovsky, in a new version by Samuel Adamson. ©Richard Davenport 2013. - Credit: Richard Davenport

Lashings of authentic Roma Gypsy music and chilly Russian bite colour this engaging 19th century play by Ostrovsky, brought to life in its UK premiere by Insite Performance. Originally entitled, ‘Without A Dowry’, this version has been re-coined ‘Larisa and The Merchants’ by Samuel Adamson and it expertly details the wavering fickleness of the human spirit and the price of love.

Larisa is a young woman bound by the constraints of her time, her gender and her background. In a world where nearly everything is bought and sold, Larisa only has one thing to offer. The trouble is, love has little value and her suitors may drive her to a bargain that commands a small price but at a grave and significant cost.

Opening with a choreographed dance performance accompanied by guitar and fiddle, the audience is at once thrown into the rough-edged charm of the culture and the era. Then, cut to a conversation at a café, the drama unfolds. Things start slow, but what is unveiled over the following 2 and a quarter hours is a story covering the broadest palette of human emotion.

Larisa and the Merchants is a compelling cocktail. Showing desire and romance, yet also the incomprehensible urge to self-hijack happiness and well-being. A play that puts the microscope on human nature’s irritation at compromise and the almost illogical contempt at contentment. All this may sound like a heavy-going theatre experience. However, these weighty topics are made bearable by a generous dose of striking dark humour. Thus, the production is injected with a balance that offers a complete experience for the theatre-goer.

Perfectly conveying the complexities of the motives and intentions of their characters, the cast are all uniformly excellent. The staging is simple but effective. It is a production that demands to be seen.

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