Review by Daz Gale
2023 has been a pretty impressive year for the ever-reliable Almeida Theatre, even more so than usual. With well-received shows including The Secret Life Of Bees, West End transfers or Patriots, A Streetcar Named Desire and the upcoming A Mirror not to mention a New York run for The Doctor and 2024 Broadway transfer of Tammy Faye. With such an outstanding hit rate, hopes are high for their final production of the year – a world premiere adaptation of the hit movie Cold War. Would it be able to live up to the expectation or would it leave me feeling cold?
Based on the 2014 Academy Award-nominated movie from Paweł Pawlikowski, this stage adaptation begins its life in Poland in 1949 as bold singer Zula meets withdrawn composer Wiktor. As the undeniable attraction between them hots up, Cold War takes us on their story through different decades and multiple countries set against a backdrop of division and communism.
Adapted for the stage by Conor McPherson, Cold War is full of subtle and unassuming writing as it reflects the challenging times the characters face, drawing obvious parallels to Wiktor’s own withdrawn nature. While the story itself still manages to captivate, at times the low energy atmosphere of the majority of the play can lead to a slight pacing problem, particularly noticeable in the first act. As the years progress and the action picks up in the second act, any pacing issues fade away but it does slightly detract from the wonderful sensitivity of the writing at times. Though the story itself is full of heart and heartache, I found myself surprisingly unmoved by events, though this of course could speak more for myself. It was a story I longed to connect to and my inability to despite the right elements being in place did dampen my enjoyment somewhat.
Rupert Goold’s direction is as inspired as always with some creative choices illuminating the predominantly dark setting. The necessary nuances in performances and setting are well thought out with a less-is-more approach working fairly well. This is sometimes at odds with the sporadic larger performances, most notably an overly energetic ensemble performance to ‘Rock Around The Clock’ which feels as if it has been taken from another show completely. As bizarre as that particular sequence was to watch unfold, it had a huge impact and showed the contradictions of the quieter scenes that surrounded it. Ellen Kane’s choreography is a major factor in the success of these larger scenes, creating a glorious visual on Jon Bausor’s sparse but effective set design.
More of a play with music than a full-blown musical, numbers from the movie are joined by new compositions from Elvis Costello allowing a mix of traditional folk songs to echo through the theatre. While these predominantly take place in the context of the show with Zula or other characters performing as part of her character, they are not used to further the story as much as you might expect and often finish shortly after they have begun. This became frustrating at times as not allowing the songs to breathe means they didn't realise their full potential and the impact was lost somewhat. Though the music is all performed pleasingly by a cast whose vocal skills show no limits, they take a back seat in the grand scheme of things in this production.
One element of Cold War I cannot fault is in its fantastic cast. Luke Thallon gives a commanding performance as Wiktor showcasing the extremities of his acting capabilities in a role that demands emotion throughout and a nonchalance defeated nature at times to reflect the complexities of the character. In a particularly powerful speech towards the show’s climax, Luke reveals more of the character in an acting feat so wonderful, it made the withdrawn portrayal in some of the earlier scenes make all the more sense. Anya Chalotra is a joy to watch as Zula, a character who changes before our very eyes. Her performances are far bigger than the character of Wiktor and as such her choices can be more bold. From her captivating entrance, she lights up the stage whenever she sets foot on it and blows the audience away in a star performance.
With Wiktor and Zula the main focus of the story, other characters are underused and underdeveloped fairly drastically. Elliot Levey once again proves what an incredible actor he is in his role of Kaczmarek but his fairly prominent role in the show’s opening scenes leads to a notable absence for the most part of the show. Similarly, the always sensational Alex Young is inexplicably under-utilised as Irena, though she does get an opportunity to showcase her beautiful voice on one of the musical highlights. Jordan Metcalfe is a standout in his role of Michel – a fairly small, one-note character but one he truly makes the most of, creating humour in his mannerisms and inflections.
To call Cold War enjoyable feels like a contradiction, given the dark sombre nature of the story and the inevitable doom that awaits it. It manages to convey these difficult themes very well, though the tone of the show did get lost along the way at times and led to a slight pacing problem. Still a beautiful albeit harrowing story in its own right, Cold War is bolstered by phenomenal performances, impressive writing and stunning direction. While it might not quite match the genius levels of the Almeida’s previous productions this year, it once again goes to show there is a certain quality to expect from them that never dips below a particular level. I’m unsure why this show failed to connect with me as it should, but it didn’t stop me appreciating it objectively. I only wish there had been a little more heat.
Cold War plays at the Almeida Theatre until 27th January 2024. Tickets from almeida.co.uk
Photos by Marc Brenner