Kate Lock’s Russian Dolls, winner of the 2015 Adrian Pagan award for new writing, brings together two unlikely companions – Hilda, blind, elderly and struggling to maintain her independence, and Camelia, who’s just got out of a young offenders’ institution and wants nothing more than to go back there. When she robs Hilda, a surprising connection is forged, and the two discover that their lives are actually not all that different.
Exploring as it does some difficult themes – abuse, loneliness, gang violence and addiction, among others – it would be easy for the play to become a bleak picture of two isolated souls just trying to survive. And while there’s certainly plenty in Hamish MacDougall’s production to shock and dismay, this brilliant two-hander is far from one-dimensional. Both Hilda and Camelia are strong-willed and proud, and they quite literally speak different languages, so the resulting clash of personalities allows for a good deal of humour alongside some genuinely heart-warming moments.
Playing these complex characters are two perfectly cast actresses, who each begin alone on stage with a soliloquy direct to the audience. Stephanie Fayerman’s Hilda is determined and stubborn, refusing to stop living her life or to give up the things she loves, and discussing the sudden total loss of her sight with a levity that only thinly masks her devastation. Meanwhile, Mollie Lambert takes Camelia, a character many would be all too ready to write off as a lost cause, and reveals her to be an affectionate, warm and funny girl, who loves her family and dreams of a better future. Like Hilda, her bravado hides an intense vulnerability, and her ambitions become all the more poignant as she’s inevitably drawn back into the repeating patterns of the world she’s left behind.
Becky-Dee Trevenen’s set takes in the whole width of the intimate space, encompassing Hilda’s front door, living room and kitchen. We never see outside the flat, only hearing second-hand about characters and events, and this heightens the sense of isolation for the two women. In fact the only time the story doesn’t feel completely natural is on the one occasion the outside world briefly enters their safe space, when Camelia arrives home with a gun she’s stolen from her brother and his gang. This results in a mildly chaotic scene in which she runs around the flat behind Hilda’s back, hiding the weapon somewhere new, only to pick it up again moments later and move it somewhere else – and finally putting it back where it was in the first place. When the gun then disappears in the following scene, it feels like a bit of an anticlimax, and we only learn its true significance much later.
This thoughtful and moving play ends rather abruptly, with no clear resolution, but still manages to leave us feeling uplifted, despite some of the horrors that take place within it. Camelia and Hilda’s relationship begins as a practical arrangement – Camelia acts as Hilda’s eyes, while Hilda provides the authority and discipline Camelia’s never had from her own mother – but grows into one of genuine affection. This, along with the open-ended final scene, encourages us to go away considering how society needs to change before such stories can possibly have a happy ending.