A brilliant, tense, ragged slice of drama: Waiting for Lefty reviewed

29 May 2021

9:00 AM

29 May 2021

9:00 AM

A Russian Doll

Arcola Theatre, until 12 June

Waiting for Lefty

A Russian Doll is a monologue about Putin’s campaign to swing the Brexit vote in his favour. It stars Rachel Redford whose Borat accent becomes grating after a little. She plays Masha, a computer wizard and language expert, who works for a firm of hackers appointed to spread fake news ahead of the referendum. Masha uses two techniques. She poses as a British Facebook subscriber and drops scary comments on to her timeline. ‘If we don’t leave the EU, Muslim extremists will flood the country.’ Her other ploy is to share a quiz about bikinis with her female correspondents. If the offer is taken up, the bots can harvest data from the correspondents and from their followers too. These methods seem rather time-consuming and haphazard.

Masha has other problems on her mind. Her father died in an unexplained military accident in Chechnya. And she fears that the Russian secret service are out to bump her off. These stories don’t mesh well with the central narrative. But then the central narrative doesn’t mesh well with itself. Masha knows little of the English language and nothing about British culture. ‘Some of the people are so poor they ride bicycles,’ she says. Her linguistic expertise is limited to her study of Wuthering Heightsbut somehow she has mastered the complex patois of south London, and she can pose convincingly as a black teenager from Peckham named Zayla. That doesn’t ring true.

Masha’s boss, Jay-Zee, is another puzzling creation. He’s in charge of the drive to make Brexit a reality but he’s not a computer expert and he landed the job because his powerful father pulled a few strings. Really? The fate of Europe and the future of Russia’s foreign policy hang on Jay-Zee’s ability to practise the dark arts of digital propaganda and yet he has none of the relevant skills and his staff regard him as a work-shy buffoon. He spends his time ogling the interns, joy-riding in borrowed helicopters and grooving the night away in oligarchs’ dachas.

The script is crammed with false assumptions and dippy prejudices. It tells us that the motto ‘take back control’ was invented by Masha’s colleagues. Authorship of the phrase is disputed but UKIP-ers claim to have used it on leaflets as long ago as 2010. No serious commentator believes it was coined by Russian computer geeks. This peculiar show feels like a consoling fantasy for disappointed Remainers. It is, at least, free of the usual venom and anger. And it offers an account of the referendum that allows Remainers to forgive their opponents. The poor Brexiteers couldn’t help voting against their own interests because they were being brainwashed by a gang of meddling outsiders who plotted to ruin Britain and succeeded. In other words, Brexit was caused by ‘Johnny Foreigner up to his usual tricks’. That prejudice is commonly laid at the feet of Brexiteers. This play, perhaps correctly, ascribes it to Remainers.

Waiting for Lefty is a 1935 play by Clifford Odets about political radicalism during the great depression. Poverty was real back then. Bailiffs broke into your apartment and repossessed your furniture if the payments were late. Parents who couldn’t find work had to send their children to bed hungry. There were no food banks with vegan options for unemployed herbivores.

This brilliant, tense, ragged slice of drama is set on the eve of a cab drivers’ strike in New York. It unfolds as a series of raw, thrilling vignettes. An impoverished wife tells her weakling husband to join the strikers and stand up to his boss. ‘He’s putting wrinkles in my face and turning you into a jellyfish,’ she says. The husband refuses because the unions are racketeers. His wife puts on her lipstick and prepares to visit an ex-boyfriend ‘for a loan’. This challenge stirs her feeble husband into action and the scene ends with a powerful and unexpected erotic reconciliation between the couple.

The entire play simmers and crackles with energy — as if it were dashed off in a couple of days, or a couple of hours. The Zoom format reduces the energy levels a little but it’s still worth a look. The character of Lefty, the workers’ hero, fails to materialise in the final scene. Sounds familiar? That twist provided the inspiration for Samuel Beckett’s breakthrough play. He nicked the title as well, of course.

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