Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Plays 2 - Stephen Poliakoff


Poliakoff really has a thing about his granddad, doesn't he? It's understandable - a Russian inventor turned British millionaire - but it so heavily stressed in three of the four plays here (and in the new TV series Summer of Rockets, which starts on BBC2 tomorrow night) that you can't help wishing he'd get over it.

Breaking the Silence (stage play, 1984) is fairly and squarely about old Joe P, albeit he's called Nikolai here. Nikolai is a rich Jewish inventor trying to get his family out of Bolshevik Russia whilst at the same time inventing sound film. It's a cracking, hugely ambitious piece which only a state supported theatre (in this case the RSC) could possibly mount. The whole thing is set on a railway carriage which gets shunted further and further away from centres of influence, whilst Nikolai half-heartedly pretends to be an official inspector. Trains are another recurring motif for Poliakoff. Poliakoff the young writer is, as ever, present in the character of Nikolai's son Sasha. Thus we have the perfect Poliakoff prototype: Sasha and the inventive Russian aristos on a Train going nowhere.

Playing with Trains (stage play, 1989) is an obvious continuation of the theme. In this case the inventor-father is British who has become rich by making key improvements to the inventions of others. Then he stakes everything on a revolutionary rail-road vehicle  - and fails. Here, the role of Sasha Poliakoff is shared between Bill's son Danny and the son Bill would like to have had, his co-inventor Mick. There are great ideas at play here but the play itself doesn't convince because it lacks all sense of place. The set is minimal to allow for quick changes, almost as if Poliakoff feels restricted by the stage and wants to move on to TV and film.

She's Been Away (TV film, 1989) is the exception here because it's not Russian, has nothing to do with anyone's grandfather, and the Sasha character isn't in it. It is not Poliakoff's first original work for TV; that was Stronger than the Sun in 1977, followed, inevitably, by Caught on a Train three years later).Lillian is the one who has been away, locked in a mental hospital for decades because of sexual shenanigans as a child. Her nephew Hugh, an honourable and rich man, has decided to do the right thing and provide her with a room in his mansion in Holland Park. Lillian (a late swansong for the great Peggy Ashcroft) is uncooperative, stubborn and resourceful but in the end she saves the day.  This is a charming, sensitive and thoughtful piece which, fortunately for us, Poliakoff continues to produce thirty years on.

Century is an actual movie, directed by Poliakoff, which came out on New Year's Eve 1993. Eccentric Russian granddad is back (played by Robert Stephens whose son Toby succeeds to the role in Summer of Rockets). Instead of Sasha our youthful protagonist is more akin to Stephen Poliakoff's brother, the eminent chemist Sir Martyn. It is New Year's Eve 1899, which Mr Reisner insists is the last day of the 19th century - a quirk which has set him at odds with his local council which rightly argues that the new century begins on January 1 1901. This is a good joke, reflecting the debate which was probably just beginning in 1993 about when we should celebrate the Millennium. Mr Reisner's son Paul is a newly qualified doctor, off to London to join the research institute newly founded by the celebrated Professor Mandry. New hope soon falters, however, when Paul discovers that Mandry is a pioneer of eugenics. That is a stunning turn of events, which Poliakoff handles magnificently, especially when eccentric Mr Reisner blunders in on the climactic confrontation.

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