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Tuesday 18th December 2007
Theatre Review | THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT | Southwark Playhouse

Production: The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant
Playwright: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, translated by David Tushingham
Producer: The Oslo Group in association with Southwark Playhouse
Venue: Southwark Playhouse
Address: Shipwright Yard, (Corner of Tooley Street & Bermondsey Street), London, SE1 2TF
Box Office: +44 (0) 8700 601 761
Dates: 6 December 2007 - 5 January 2008
Opened: 10 December 2007
Buy Theatre Tickets from Ticketmaster
Reviewed by Belinda Williams

In the cold underbelly of London Bridge, an oneiric pattern of mother-daughter disassociation and emotional decline is being played out each night to a small, blanketed audience. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant has been beautifully retranslated by David Tushingham, and in the hands of The Oslo Group, here is a play where the real and the surreal meld as seamlessly as in dreams and nightmares.

One enters through the dressing-room of the six female protagonists. Each one sits in front of a mirror, preparing as actress/character. If you linger, they may flash you a wickedly disarming smile, like neon winter sprites aware that they are about to spin you a fantasy. Kimie Nakano and Matt Deely's set has touches of brilliance, like a bucket of canned gin and tonics with bright straws arranged like flowers, from which Petra plucks solace. There are elements that feel a little forced I had difficulty with the incongruous paddling-pool full of gold leaves and washing-up gloves but overall they have moulded the difficult Southwark Playhouse space well. Richard Howell's lighting and Hakon Brynjulvsvrud's sound design are both equally successful, and intriguing, as both are created and manipulated by the actresses themselves.

In the title role, the brilliant Sasha Behar offers a stellar performance. Her Petra appears as an insouciant Audrey Hepburn alter-ego, a stylish woman with little control over her kamikaze personal life. She has been perfectly dressed as, beneath her kimono dressing-gown and patent white mules, the glamour of her existence is abased by thermal longjohns. Behar excels in the self-pitying monologues of the pained artiste, and her precocious onstage authority is reminiscent of a young Judi Dench. Naomi Taylor is successful as the working-class temptress, whose apparent greenness is undermined by the impossibly high Soho heels on her feet. Petra's so-called friend and social equal, Sidonie (Mabel Aitken), passes sugar-coated judgements with insidious calculation, whilst those who really care for Petra are relegated to offstage positions.

Interestingly, it is the remaining three characters who are in charge of much of the light and sound and therefore underpin the existence of both Petra and the show. Her mute servant Marlene (played with fitting stylisation by Anna Egseth) is both mother and slave, serving everything of a dusty mirror onstage, and following Petra obsessively with a spotlight when off. Petra's mother Valerie (Clara Perez) spends most of the play in Japan, whilst daughter Gabriele (Deirdra Morris) is relegated to a small space under the arches, from where she provides 'noises off'. Add to this a fantastic selection of music from Petra's record-player, and one has the recipe for an intriguing and imaginative take on Rainer Werner Fassbinder's modern classic.

This is the tale of a woman for whom only her tears are bitter, whilst those of her family go unnoticed, and the final 'Lacrimosa' sung a cappella by the de-wigged women underlines this destructive self-obsession. This is a lovely production, which, despite the cold setting, deserves a larger audience.

Belinda Williams 2007

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