Tragic love story across the Iron Curtain
“There’s a tree at the crossroads
There’s a nail in my shoe
Repeat to me softly
As you vow, that we’ll see it through.”
Lyric from I Do (Zula’s Song)
Cold War the musical from the Almeida is drawn after Pawel Pawlikowski’s film of the same name which was lightly based on the story of the filmmaker’s parents, a doctor and a ballet dancer from Poland. The book for the musical has been written by Conor McPherson, the music is traditional Polish folk music and songs from Elvis Costello and the musical is directed by Rupert Goold.
The story is of composer musician, Wiktor (Luke Thallon) and his love for a singer Zula (Anya Chalotra). We see Irena (Alex Young) and Wiktor collecting traditional Polish music from isolated areas including the mountains.
Zula is auditioning to join a singing and dancing troupe to sing traditional Polish music organised by party activist Comrade Kaczmarek. (Elliot Levey). Zula uses subterfuge to get the part, leaving out a significant part of her history and by pretending to be from a peasant family.
There are strings if you want to be involved in this troupe. This is Poland immediately post war after the country was caught between the Russian and German armies These are the employment conditions: “You will get clean clothes, three meals a day and (the real bonus!) unlimited political instruction.”
We see the troupe rehearsing, wearing traditional costume and dancing to folk music. I was really pleased to see a hurdy gurdy being played in an early scene with its perfect sound for folk tunes. The political instruction was because the plans were to tour the Eastern Block with their show.
Wiktor the pianist and Zula fall in love and Zula sings her song “I Do” by Costello. The next musical item is Chopin’s beautiful Nocturne No 20 in C# Minor. Vodka made from old, rotten potatoes is the alcohol. Not of choice but of necessity. Chase make an equivalent today at £22.
The show is played in costume, red floral headdresses and a backdrop of Comrade Stalin, the dance is lots of twirling and stamping with lots of strings from the orchestra. Wiktor is conducting. Kaczmarek tells us that the Deputy Minister loved it, this celebration of the Fatherland. Irena falls foul of the political regime because she did not ban a folksong from a proscribed area and she leaves.
While on tour in East Berlin, Wiktor and Zula plan to escape but Zula is persuaded to stay while Wiktor sees life in Berlin from the other side of the Iron Curtain. The gauche Americans ask stupid questions. Much later, Zula will come to the West after marrying a Sicilian and getting Italian Nationality.
In Act Two Wiktor and Zula are living in Paris but Zula is jealous of Wiktor’s old girlfriends and unhappy and asks Wiktor whether he thinks about going back. She spends her time in Paris in a Polish bar. If he did go back to Poland he would be accused of defection and he says to Zula, “I’d be breaking rocks in quarries for 20 years.” The Poles ask him to spy on other Polish defectors. No more spoilers!
Full marks to the Almeida for giving us something darker and devoid of tinsel for the December holiday. Jon Bausor’s sets have an old proscenium arch behind, paint peeling off the walls and a beaten up piano. In line with the film, Paule Constable’s lighting is dark and depressing. The blend of music is refreshing, Costello’s songs are soulful, Jazz age numbers feature in the West and the dance by Ellen Kane, is effective according to the region.
The performances here are heart breaking as we see the impossibility of Zula and Wiktor’s continuing relationship. Is this also a metaphor for the incompatibility of relative values of East and West? Of course Kaczmarek from an affable but steely Elliot Levey, rises wherever he is, gets whatever and whoever he wants and we see his baby’s nanny in Norland Nanny uniform! What could be more symbolic of Western values?
At My Mother’s
I Do (Zula’s Song)
20 in C# Minor
Pid Oblaczkom [Choral Reprise]
I Want You
What Is It That I Need,
That I Don’t Already Have
Still Too Soon To Know
I Do (Zula’s Song) [Reprise]
Pid Oblaczkom [Recording Studio]
At My Mother’s [Reprise]
Siient Child [Reprise]/
He Taught Me To Lie
I Do (Zula’s Song) [Finale]
Book by Conor McPherson
Music: Elvis Costello
Based on the film by Pawel Pawlikowski
Directed by Rupert Goold
Sophie Maria Wojna
Choreographer: Ellen Kane
Set Designer: Jon Bausor
Costume Designer: Evie Gurney
Musical Supervisor and Arranger:
Sound Designer: Sinéad Diskin
Musical Director: Jo Cichonska
Running Time: Two hours 50 minutes with an interval
Booking until 27th January 2024