The March on Russia

Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, London (****)

© Helen Maybanks, Ian Gelder as former miner, Mr Pasmore and politician daughter, Wendy (Sarah Belcher)

© Helen Maybanks, Ian Gelder’s wonderfully hollowed out former miner, Tommy Pasmore and politician daughter, Wendy (Sarah Belcher)

For several decades, David Storey was a titan of working class political realism, garlanded with awards for films such as This Sporting Life and The Changing Room. On stage, plays like The Contractor, In Celebration and for Storey, the unusually more abstract, Home with Sir John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, charted the dying chords of a post-war generation, family life and Britain’s changing industrial landscape.

Then Storey’s semi-autobiographical northern style seemed to go out of fashion.

A couple of decades on and acclaimed young company, Up In Arms, led by director Alice Hamilton and writer Barney Norris have been slowly excavating the lives of ordinary people with Visitors, Eventide, and While We’re Here (all by Barney Norris) and a revival of Robert Holman’s poignant study in diffidence and lost opportunities, German Skerries, also staged in association with Paul Miller’s revitalised Orange Tree.

Given their shared interest and common ground, it’s therefore perhaps not so surprising that Up In Arms have lighted on Storey. And in The March of Russia find a source of such acutely observed family, domestic pain and political pertinence as to set the heart racing afresh.

It is 1989, the height of Thatcherism and the miners’ strike. The Pasmores – a retired Wakefield miner and his wife – are celebrating their diamond wedding anniversary.

Sixty years married and judging by the bickering that Storey charts between them, every day a partial warfare. But equally a loving one.

© Helen Maybanks, Sue Wallace and Ian Gelder, as the happy couple, celebrating 60 years of married life...

© Helen Maybanks, Sue Wallace and Ian Gelder, as the happy couple, celebrating 60 years of married life…

Watching the sparring between Sue Wallace’s flat, sharp-tongued mother and Ian Gelder’s silicosis ruined frame heaving coals on the fire, you see the love – and the struggle – that has flowed between them all these years. `Wife, family, children – ‘it’s what’s it all about, in’t it’, says Gelder’s Pasmore as if that should account for all the hardships endured, the poverty and at the end, utter bleakness.

The Orange Tree’s in-the-round intimacy could hardly be a more perfect setting for these intensely personal exchanges and Wallace and Gelder speak the lines as if they really had been living under each other’s domestic microscopes all these years, making endless pots of tea and sharing delights in crossword trivia.

Enter their three adult children, come to celebrate with them. And what starts out as celebration slowly unravels into acrimony and bitterness.

It also allows Storey to fill in, if a little crudely, stories from their past lives, the social and cultural changes the Pasmores have undergone, the sacrifices made.

From time to time you wonder how Colin, Wendy and Eileen aren’t reacting as though they’ve heard these stories so many times before.  Surely Dad must have told Colin about his march on Russia, and mother recount again the few sticks of furniture she and Dad possessed when they first married?

Well, you have to take it as Storey filling out a few details and taking a little dramatic license in order to make a point.

And the point, looking from today’s perspective, especially with the mother’s political views, is fascinating. A hard-working, stay-at-home working-class mum who brought up three children on a pittance, she now expresses the finger-pointing intolerance of a regular Daily Mail reader bewailing the welfare state for making today’s workers too soft. Today, she’d be adding migrant workers into the mix.

© Helen Maybanks, Sarah Belcher as the Pasmore's politicians daughter, Wendy, and Connie Walker as Eileen

© Helen Maybanks, Sarah Belcher as the Pasmore’s politicians daughter, Wendy, and Connie Walker as Eileen

Alice Hamilton’s production captures a nice sense of period (though one audience member wondered if they’d have had cordless kettles in 1989!) whilst Sarah Belcher’s childless daughter-divorcee, Wendy, turned politician (not Labour, `left them’, she says, Independent) conveys the  truculence of those feminist inspired times.

The other daughter, Eileen is underwritten by Storey. Connie Walker’s portrait gives us a study in nondescript acquiescence – hard to achieve.

We don’t get to know too much either about Colin Tierney’s Colin, a successful writer on whom the parents set their sights rather too much (to the resentment especially of Wendy) but who now seems haunted by dark depression and a nameless terror.

© Helen Maybanks, Colin Tierney as the Pasmores' favoured son, Colin, and Ian Gelder (back to camera)

© Helen Maybanks, Colin Tierney as the Pasmores’ favoured son, Colin, and Ian Gelder (back to camera)

Storey’s observation, however, of the strange, stunted status quo that exists for adult children returning to their parents hits home is beautifully charted and with extraordinary truth. For all the moments of confessional  skeleton rattling, there is still as much left unsaid in the jolly manufactured fronts all three adopt for their parents’ benefit.

But finally the plays belongs to mother and father Pasmore, to Wallace’s beady, resilient Mrs Pasmore and Gelder’s wonderfully hollow-cheeked, wrecked miner, Tommy, monuments to a generation – decent, unexceptional, suffering in silence. If you listen carefully, you can hear the sound of hearts breaking at the senselessness of it all.

A post-war working-class classic, if ever there was one. I hope it leads to many more David Storey revivals. This was an absolute cracker.

The March on Russia
By David Storey 

Colin: Colin Tierney
Mr Pasmore: Ian Gelder
Mrs Pasmore: Sue Wallace
Wendy: Sarah Belcher
Eileen: Connie Walker

Director: Alice Hamilton
Designer: James Perkins
Lighting Designer: Nicholas Holdridge
Sound Designer & Composer: Harry Blake
Costume Designer: Sophia Simensky
Dialect Coach: Tim Charrington
Casting Consultant: Sophie Parrott CDG
Casting Assistant: Rebecca Murphy

An Orange Tree production in association with Up in Arms 

First perf of this production of The March on Russia at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, London, Sept 7, 2017. Runs to Oct 7, 2017

Review published on this site, Sept 27, 2017