In the small, modern North Wall Arts Centre stands a large, buzzing swarm of thesps and arty types. Each sporting their own unique variation on the traditional indie look of edgy eyebrows, unexpected hairstyles, distressed denim and a smattering of eclectic patterned vintage, these eager culture vultures await show time. What has brought this lively young bunch of art and fashion enthusiasts all the way to Summertown? Well, it’s the opening night of Colin and Katya, a new play about Ukrainian ‘mail-order’ brides, blending physical theatre, musical performance and straight drama.
Colin and Katya, a new piece of writing by the talented Jack Clover, explores the world of the often vulnerable, occasionally sleazy, people who choose to pursue love not only online but across the world. Clearly conscious that there are a lot of myths to dispel, and a lot of preconceptions to deal with, the play does a wonderful job of revealing the very real kinds of people behind the common stereotypes of trophy wives and seedy old men. In short, exhibiting the people behind the dating profiles, and the many different reasons why a person might pursue love and marriage abroad. Though the play certainly has many fantastic moments of comedy, the actual plot deals with a number of really quite heavy themes – abuse, grief, divorce, family life, the hopeful search for love, the pain of being misled in a relationship. However, Clover’s script approaches these sensitive subjects with a lightness of touch and alternates swiftly between this and the comedic aspect, in a way that does not diminish the weight of the more serious issues at hand.
Unsurprisingly, the main characters are a pair called, yes, Colin and Katya. Katya, the female lead played by Daisy Hayes, is a Ukrainian women looking for something meaningful, having recently left a physically abusive and controlling marriage. Hayes’ performance is beautifully earnest and delicate, as the brave, intelligent Katya, who certainly does not go into the process wearing rose-tinted glasses. After speaking online for several months, Katya travels to Essex, the United Kingdom, to meet the shy and quietly romantic Colin, played by Tom Curzon. Over the course of her stay, the two characters develop a unique and caring connection, and both are forced to question the validity of the relationship, and deal with the judgement of others about how they met. The rapid development of the pair’s ostensibly unconventional relationship is really quite personal, and Curzon and Hayes’ performance was impressively realistic and believable. Ell Potter also gave an excellent performance as the overly-involved ex-wife, and mother to Colin’s daughter, who can’t help but degrade Colin for “going on SlavicSlag.com”. Brilliant.
Physical theatre is used throughout, to depict almost everything from a chatroom conversation to a day out visiting castles in Essex, and is brilliantly well-choreographed and executed. And many of the major laughs of the show come from the ridiculous and inventive ways in which the cast moved in sync to depict a vast number of things, such as cars, castles, speedboats, archers on horseback… I could go on, but I’ll stop there. Equally engaging was the live band playing up in the balcony above the stage, bursting into song at key moments of the play, in what I assume was Ukrainian. Interviews with the hopeful individuals who are signed up to online dating, give the viewer insight into the vast number of reasons that people get into this strange and fascinating world. Most of all, it becomes clear that the one thing common to all of these women is their shared hope in the fairy tale ending. What with the interviews, and the choreography and the music, there are a lot of different dramatic techniques taking place onstage. If all of these different elements sound a little overwhelming, let me assure you that it works. Although there is a lot going on in the play, it is obvious that a lot of rehearsal has gone into making these many different features blend seamlessly. I certainly think it was worth it – the end result is a piece of theatre that is both technically impressive and challenging.
There’s some brilliant dialogue throughout, and some lovely commentary on culture clash and cultural misunderstandings. Katya doesn’t quite get it when Colin boasts about his Mum’s “Smeg” fridge or talks excitedly about “Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Live”. But at times the script seems a little metaphor-heavy and loaded with meaning to the point of being tiresome. To loosely paraphrase: ‘My sister and her husband… look… like a boat come into harbour. I’m still at sea…’ But actually, the few, rather weighty lines like this are fairly forgivable, because many of the characters have English as a second language, and so their use of cliché and metaphor is understandably and accurately a little clunky.
On the whole, Colin and Katya is really quite entertaining and insightful. Clover’s exploration of the many lonely people around the world who ambitiously and courageously look for love abroad when they can’t find it at home, makes for an adventurous, artistic and most of all, enjoyable, show.