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The Theatreguide.London Review

The Last Ones
Jermyn Street Theatre  Summer 2017

Like the writer character in Chekhov's Sea Gull, Maxim Gorky's literary reputation will always be 'He's good, but he's no Chekhov'. 

Chekhov might have been able to make the story of a large family shaken by the abortive 1905 Russian revolution both moving as individual experiences and reflective of the larger social trauma. And a stronger director than Anthony Biggs might have been able to do more with what Gorky did write. 

But this clearly under-directed and under-rehearsed production does little justice to the playwright or the hard-working actors. 

Though unsuccessful, the 1905 revolt did expose the injustices and brutalities of the Russian regime. The titular Last Ones are the family of a particularly brutal police chief who lost his position and must now rely on the generosity of his merchant brother and whatever hopes of reinstatement he can bribe his way toward. 

Everyone in the family lives in denial of some sort, unable to acknowledge any guilt in father or imperfection in the family because to do so would shake their sense of themselves as good and normal people. 

So what we have is the material for a typical Chekhov play, a dozen characters (including some outside the family) each living their own personal drama, each potentially the main character in their own separate play, the whole resonating in ways that speak to the larger social-economic forces while hardly mentioning them directly. 

Except that this isn't a Chekhov play, and Gorky can't make each of those separate stories come alive or say much about the world outside. 

The characters are too barely sketched in, in some cases the younger children barely individualised at all, and in even the best cases defined by a single note the wife's maternalism, the eldest daughter's bitterness that keeps them from becoming rounded, realistic and sympathetic human beings. 

Well-guided actors might have been able to fill in some of the gaps in Gorky's characterisations, but nobody in this cast escapes with much dignity intact.

I've had occasion in the past to invoke Berkowitz's Law - when everyone in a cast is poor, and poor in the exact same ways, the fault lies entirely with the director, who either told them to do it that way or left them foundering without any help at all. 

Under-direction and under-rehearsal are evident not only in the frequent uneasy pauses, but in the absence of any continuity to the characterisations. Anyone not speaking at a given moment is not listening either, but has visibly turned off, going dead behind the eyes until their next cue.

The script gives each character at least one passionate outburst, but director Biggs has them each leap abruptly into those moments, with no preparation or transition, and then switch off just as abruptly, as if it had never happened. 

So what we are left with is a string of isolated flashes of high emotion, with lots of dead time in between, and little opportunity for the actors to hold any of it together. 

Judged only by their success in generating some energy and even some sympathy in their strongest moments and not by their inability to create sustained characterisations, Louise Gold (wife) and Annabel Smith (bitter daughter) come out best. 

But playwright, actors and audience have all been failed by the director.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  The Last Ones - Jermyn Street Theatre 2017