Kostyantyn, a trained Vet in Ukraine, has moved to Wales with a dream of building a new life for his young family who he hopes to bring over soon. He starts work at a slaughterhouse, living in horrendous conditions and underpaid as he (along with other migrant workers) is exploited for his need for a job. Working there, he meets local Welshman Dan who has stayed in this town for his whole life and is starting to regret never leaving this job or place. Dan's ex-girlfriend, Eden, tirelessly campaigns for a more humane end for the animals being taken to the slaughterhouse, while Kostantyn's wife Nina waits with her children and unborn twins back in Ukraine as political tensions escalate and she fears for their safety.
Grace Joy Howarth's script is brilliant - it expertly balances superb realism with more abstract and stylised scenes - and navigates the range of challenging topics covered with empathy and harsh reality without feeling overly moralistic. Anastasia Bunce's direction of the more naturalistic scenes in particular is fantastic, though some of the other moments of the play could be better thought through and more interestingly presented.
Shannon Smith and Phillip John Jones lead this talented cast with sheer mastery. Their deep understanding of their respective characters is evident from start to finish and they glide deftly through the fabulous script, easily drawing us in to every emotional beat. Jones in particular has comic timing and delivery as Dan that is nothing short of perfection, while simultaneously managing to portray the most profoundly subtle struggle of a man deeply dissatisfied with his life and unable to reach out. Smith as Kostyantyn gives heart-breaking emotion and resilience in a seriously powerful performance - he is effortlessly charismatic and able to communicate so much through a word, a gesture, or an expression. Both actors are intensely talented, and their future careers worth keeping an eye on.
The limited space is generally used to great effect, though occasional moments of staging don't appear to take the thrust space and parts of the audience into account.
Abraham Walkling-Lea's lighting is subtle but powerful, wonderfully creating a range of atmosphere and time jumps, coupled beautifully with potent sound design from The Araby Bazaar.
Alex Powell's video design is intense and moving, though we long for more of it and the integration of video generally throughout, as when it is used it is incredibly effective.
In fact, "more" really is the biggest note for this production - though the main story thread is compelling, there are too many questions left unanswered and huge potential for more of the difficult themes to be explored in greater depth, especially the parallels and backdrop of the situation in Ukraine.
What is given to us is fantastic, but simply doesn't seem to be the extent of what this play could be.
This intense evening of devastatingly powerful theatre runs at Southwark Playhouse (Borough) until 3rd February.
Review: Penny Lane Photos: Charles Flint