Review: Cold War, Almeida Theatre

This interminable adaptation of Paweł Pawlikowski’s film Cold War makes for chilly watching at the Almeida Theatre

“Going over old ground for new potatoes”

Paweł Pawlikowski’s 2008 film Zimna wojna was a critical success, albeit one that left me rather cool, and so perhaps it was inevitable that a stage adaptation wouldn’t be too far behind. It is Conor McPherson who has taken on the challenge in this production for the Almeida Theatre, mixing music from Elvis Costello with traditional Polish and Lemko songs to give us Cold War.

Whereas you can normally rely on Rupert Goold to deliver bold and thrusting work, Cold War is painfully lugubrious. You can’t help but look at the running time of the film (88 minutes) and be a bit alarmed that this is nearly twice as long. The show never justifies this approach, its storytelling stretched thin and becoming increasingly insubstantial as it skitters about the years.

At the heart of the story are Wiktor and Zula, musicians who first meet in post-war Poland and reacting against Communist interference in their work, plan to defect. As the decades pass, we see how that plan fared against the troubled Eastern European history of the time and how their relationship has coped with such strain. Spoiler alert, it didn’t…

Sadly though, it is the focus on this relationship, as opposed to the wider world of the play, that proves its downfall. There’s an idea from McPherson that this is a love for the ages but I’ll be damned if I saw any sign of it on the stage. Anya Chalotra struggles to give the abrasive and pained Zula any appeal and if Luke Thallon fares a little better as Wiktor, it was never enough for me.

There’s much more interest in the history, in the political and personal choices that people were forced to make and how those impacted life in general and Jon Bausor’s design hints at this in its multiple locations and fitful cameos from the likes of Elliot Levey’s tour manager. But by largely disengaging from the sociopolitics of it all and giving us this dour dance of an ill-matched pair, this is chilly in the extreme.

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