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Review: A Hero of Our Time, Arcola Theatre

PUBLISHED: 17:03 26 November 2018

Oliver Bennett as Pechorin. Picture: Oleg Katchinski.

Oliver Bennett as Pechorin. Picture: Oleg Katchinski.

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Jo Trew enjoys the latest offering from the Arcola Theatre, a fresh adaption of Mikhail Lermontov’s 19th century novel.

The play is an adaption of Mikhail Lermontov�s 1840 novel. Picture: Oleg Katchinski.The play is an adaption of Mikhail Lermontov�s 1840 novel. Picture: Oleg Katchinski.

Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time is not as well known in the U.K. as it should be.

It’s an oddly formed novel with three narrators recounting five episodes from the life of Pechorin, a bored, cynical ‘superfluous man’ – a kind of overeducated underachiever who lounges across the pages of a lot of nineteenth century Russian literature. It was hard to imagine how HUNCHtheatre was going to compress it all into a single seventy minute play. The answer is, gloriously, that they haven’t even tried. Bennett’s script mixes the Tsarist Russian world with sweary modern slang to great effect, focusing on a single episode where, having washed up in a distant spa town, Pechorin plays havoc with the love lives of his bantering frenemy Grushnitsky (James Marlowe), the glamourous Princess Mary and his old flame, Vera (both played with stylish wit by Scarlett Saunders).

The set is similarly abbreviated, with a chesterfield sometimes standing in for a horse and the wild countryside of the Caucasus hinted at through the underside of a Persian rug.

Amazingly this all more or less works. The play begins at a hell of a clip and accelerates from there, driven on by writer Oliver Bennett’s forceful performance as Pechorin, a study in sardonic humour and self-loathing, apparently trying to break the land-speed record with his narration.

James Marlowe (left) performs as Grushnitsky, the friend - and love rival - of Bennett's Pechorin. Picture: Oleg Katchinski.James Marlowe (left) performs as Grushnitsky, the friend - and love rival - of Bennett's Pechorin. Picture: Oleg Katchinski.

The cast hold nothing back, leaping around the stage, grappling on the floor and gleefully stepping all over each other’s lines. It’s impossible to catch every word, but it doesn’t remotely matter.

The abbreviation of the cast is less successful. Marlowe offers an agile performance when switching between roles but Bennett’s comedy-voiced doctor detracts from the climax of the play, an otherwise tense and moving scene.

The ending is vague, dragged out by an unnecessary song and a bit of random shuffling about. But the overall effect is an exhilarating, irreverent take on an overlooked classic.

4/5 stars.

A Hero of Our Time runs at the Arcola Theatre until Saturday December 15. For more details and tickets click here.

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