When 'The Promise' first premiered in London, in 1967, Noël Coward described the work by Soviet playwright Aleksei Arbuzov as a 'nearly good play'. It feels like a near miss again in this intriguing but unspectacular revival.
Three teenagers are thrown together at the siege of Leningrad, forming a profound and difficult love-triangle, which is revisited ten and then 20 years later, as the memory of the siege and the persistence of the bonds they forged haunts their lives.
Penelope Skinner's new version of the text is a qualified success. She certainly succeeds in bringing a truthfulness to the adolescent banter and a realism to the bodily horrors which cuts through the schmaltz and occasional whiffs of propaganda. Max Bennett is superb as the proud Marat, ably matched by Joanna Vanderham as Lika, who moves skilfully from tomboyish teen to a quietly tragic maturity.
Alex Sims directs capably, but neither he nor Skinner has found a solution to the play's structural repetition, as Marat enters, ominously, time and time again, a device that hardens into a dull predictability by the final scenes. 'The Promise' is, at heart, a conventional play about remarkable times, and though Skinner has failed to make it remarkable, she has at least made it live.
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