Cold War, Almeida Theatre, 2023
Photo: Marc Brenner
  • Theatre, Musicals
  • Recommended


Cold War

4 out of 5 stars

Anya Chalotra and Luke Thallon are magnificent in this swooning adaptation of the hit Polish indie film

Andrzej Lukowski

Time Out says

As a semi-authentic Pole I joined some of my countryfolk in raising an eyebrow when the Almeida’s ‘Cold War’ was announced. That’s because it’s a rare example of a recent Polish story being told on an English stage – an adaptation of Paweł Pawlikowski’s 2018 indie flick – that is distinctly light on the involvement of Polish talent. It’s not that Irish playwright Conor McPherson is unqualified to adapt, Almeida boss Rupert Goold to direct, or New Wave legend Elvis Costello to write the songs. It’s just that this country’s enormous Polish population has little visibility in popular culture, and I feel there was an opportunity missed to do more here.

With that said, I’m going to declare glasnost, because frankly ‘Cold War’ is beautiful.

As the story begins, wry, reserved pianist and composer Wiktor (Luke Thallon), his high-minded partner Irena (Alex Young) and their grifter manager Kaczmarek (Elliot Levey) are touring the countryside of postwar Communist Poland, trying to hoover up traditional folk songs for recording. Their little group is soon rocked to the core. First by a government minister, who wonders if they might rearrange these traditional tunes into patriotic pro-Soviet anthems, prompting the exit of the high-minded Irena. And then by Anya Chalotra’s impetuous peasant girl Zula, who blows into Wiktor’s life like a hurricane, fierce, questioning, irreverent and passionate. 

The core of the production is the extraordinary chemistry between Thallon’s gloriously arid Wiktor – he’s a bit like Hugh Grant on downers – and Chalotra’s force of nature Zula, her Black Country accent alive and crackling. He’s reserved, she rages; they go together like a beautiful fire in a hearth made of ice: gorgeous, but doomed. Or doomed eventually: it’s a bit like a slowcore ‘Romeo & Juliet’ – their relationship unfolds between the ’40s and the ’60s in fits and starts, but their final destination never feels in doubt, despite the intensity of their love.

Although the story is initially located in Iron Curtain Poland, it’s not long until Wiktor makes his escape to France. The smart thing about Pawlikowski’s title is that ‘Cold War’ doesn’t necessarily refer to the geopolitical conflict but rather Wiktor and Zula’s relationship and their deep, at first almost invisible, trauma. McPherson’s text and Thallon’s performance are all the more powerful for the fact that it’s not initially obvious that Wiktor is struggling at all – it’s only as decades of story pass by that we finally understand him.

Goold directs the whole thing like a sad, smokey late-night cabaret performance in a faded old bar: there’s a glamour to it but it’s intimate, warm and nocturnal. There are some clever tableaux and scene transitions with moments of clever stylisation but nothing too flashy – aesthetically it’s defined by the constant chugging of stage cigarettes.

Costello has dabbled with a bewildering number of musical styles from across the world during his lengthy career, and provides credible English language Eastern European-style folk songs, mixed in with a few of the Polish language songs from the film. Aside from a pre-recorded song that plays after the curtain call, you’d be unlikely to guess it was him if you didn’t know already, and I sort of feel this might have been the opening for a musician with a Polish background. But he undoubtedly gets bums on seats, and the variety of consultants drafted in give the folkier moments the tang of authenticity without fetishising them – particular credit to language coach Edyta Nowosielska for getting respectable Polish singing performances out of her largely English cast.

Again, I kind of feel like a pub bore bringing all this up, because it really is a lovely show, and appreciably different to the film: the plot is identical, but McPherson’s dialogue is funnier, and it runs around an hour longer, with a gorgeously weary nocturnal quality replacing the crisp black and white cinematography. You’ll get a little more out of it if you have a vague understanding of the Iron Curtain, but you certainly don’t need in-depth knowledge. Ultimately it’s a radiantly sad story about two people whose love is not enough to cure the wounds they suffered before we even met them. As beautiful as only doomed romances could be, with lead performances to die for.


£12.50-£60. Runs 2hr 40min
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