The People Are Singing

Royal Exchange Theatre Studio



This new work by Lizzie Nunnery makes for uneasy viewing. We flinch as 12 year old Irina plays with a skipping rope that seems to scourge her flesh. As she chalks out Hopscotch or bounces over rope we reconnect with the universality of play. Mother and child are hungry and vulnerable. Songs, games and rituals are all that hold them to sanity in a mad world where no one can be trusted and nothing is quite what it seems.


Cora Kirk is wonderful as the young Irina. She is on stage throughout the performance and handles this demanding role with apparent ease. The characters are well chosen to give a sense of  fighters – Mikhailo (Sam Redway) the embittered and disillusioned revolutionary and Dima (Graeme Hawley) who is excellent as the Russian soldier who  is a loving father turned monster by this war. The other women embody mothers driven mad by war. Katya (Chloe Massey) is the stoic mother feeding her starving child imaginary Borsch and Olena (Kate Coogan) as a grief stricken woman who has watched her son die in a landmine explosion.

The use of physical theatre is wonderful and there are some very deft moments – especially the use of the elastic rope. In the yellow and blue of the Ukrainian flag it allows some great moments on stage while cleverly reminding the audience of how pliable our sense of  truth and physical borders can be.

The creative staging allows the actors to conceal themselves in a range of ways. The sliding doors illuminated with church candles serves to move the actors on and off the stage while evoking a candle lit heaven or hell for the dead.

The use of song and music is central to Nunnery’s work. The singing of Russian and Ukrainian folk songs move the story along and give a sense of history and national pride. The tragedy for mankind is when our songs no longer fits our borders. What survives? Do we write new songs or sing the old ones louder?

This World Stages project brings together Nunnery and Ukrainian director Trunova gathering stories from the local Ukrainian community. They share a passion for story telling and the desire to give a voice to marginalised people. The themes of who we are in wartime and what choices we make when struggling to survive are prevalent in this piece. This is a brave production with a lot to say. There are some standout moments however it requires some editing especially towards the end where it risks becoming muddled and losing its focus. A case of too many ingredients in an excellent Borsch.








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