A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is a bestselling novel by Marina Lewyka, first published in 2005. The novel is a tragic comedy which by equal measure is full of absurd farce and immense sadness, as the chaotic present life and grim former life of central character 84 year old widower Nikolai is told. The story is interlaced with droll extracts from a short book on the history of Ukrainian tractors that Nickolai is writing.
Multi award winning playwright Tanika Gupta was commissioned to adapt this novel for the stage and the play made its debut at the renowned Hull Truck Theatre in 2017, as part of the celebrations for Hull’s year as the City of Culture. Although reviews of the play were generally positive, and a nationwide professional airing might well have been anticipated, it is somewhat surprising that, given the success of the book, it has been neglected since then. So it’s full marks to the Poulner Players for bringing this engaging and entertaining play to local am dram theatre.
In the play we meet Nikolai, a retired Ukrainian engineer and self proclaimed poet, and his daughters, Vera and Nadezhda, who haven’t spoken since the death of their mother. He is now besotted by Valentina, his new wife in waiting. She is a ruthless, gold-digging 36-year-old femme fatale from the Ukrainian homeland, who is desperate to obtain UK visas and financial security for herself and a first class British education for Stanislav, her teenage son. Valentina’s ‘superb breasts’ are often mentioned and we learn that they have in fact been surgically enhanced at Nikolai’s expense. Upon learning about their father’s situation, the two sisters come together to protect him, secure what’s left of his life’s savings and pension, and rid him of Valentina. However, that’s not what the lascivious, proud, extremely vulnerable and very foolish Nikolai wants as he proceeds with the marriage that, as to be expected, ends in disaster. Valentina is also determined to stick around while she completes her divorce from her Ukrainian husband, embarks on a succession of extra marital affairs, fleeces Nickolai and clings on to her dream of a better life in England.
As a counter balance to the unfolding farce, Nikolai’s deceased first wife Ludmilla provides links to much of the serious drama as a ghostly narrator. She steers the audience through their courtship and early marriage, their shared sufferings of the Ukrainian famine of the 1930s, Stalinist purges, Nazi internment camps and their eventual liberation and emigration to Britain in the aftermath of the Second World War. All of which is convincingly and powerfully presented by the ensemble cast and the inspired deployment of hand held puppets that are used to portray the young Ludmilla, Nickolai and their contemporaries.
Ludmilla is played with real sensitivity and palpable sadness by Marina Brown-Smith. Peter Ansell is centre stage as Nikolai and dispatches his part with a fine acting performance, as a comedic figure nuanced by the struggles of an impotent old man facing up to his interfering daughters and a new much younger wife who turns nasty on him. Teresa Miller and Julie Lax also turn in convincing performances as the two appalled daughters – Nadezhda and Vera. So does Dave Lakin in the supporting role of Nadezha’s likeable and sensible husband. Charlie Lakin, playing Stanislav and two other younger parts, also impresses. However, it’s the blistering stand out performance of Alla Mills as Valentina, and Beverley the Care Home Manager, that impresses most. It’s certainly helpful that she naturally looks the part, though this is a demanding and challenging role which she sees off with real empathy and skill.
The play involves a large number of characters in addition to the lead roles and there are just too many people in the ensemble cast to mention them all individually, but it would be a complete injustice to single anyone out for special mention. Suffice to say everyone performed with flair and provided added entertainment as they regaled the audience with extracts of the treatise on tractors in poetic witty verse.
As with the first night of any production there was an odd missed cue and a couple of forgotten lines, but none of that mattered as the play galloped along at a fast pace. In fact, one missed cue relating to the ‘superb breasts’ was the cause of much hilarity, to the delight of the audience!
The stage design provides a perfect setting for the play, based on a typical living room and kitchen of an elderly couple, annexed with a separate cemetery set, including a cherry tree, to one side of the main the stage. The toe tapping Ukrainian folk music, sound and lighting is well synchronised and helps to create the right mood for all of the actions of the play – whether moments of comedic interplay or serious drama. The many costume changes flitted between modern day attire and authentic traditional Ukrainian folk dress, helping to establish the period being enacted at each scene. The Production Team and Director Sally Whyte have done a first rate job.
Having read the novel some while ago, my recollection is that it is a nicely written and, for the most part, emotionally touching book, but ultimately it is quite superficial and undemanding of the reader and is probably perfect as a holiday read; whereas, the Gupta play adaptation, as presented by the Poulner Players, is actually much more powerful and, as a result, is so much better than this. It has the potential to leave audiences with something more profound to think about than just Valentina’s ‘superb breasts’. Yes, it is a funny story about a rather silly old man who fantasises over a nubile young woman, but it’s also a story about the horrors experienced by millions of Ukrainian people, many of whom perished in the process. See it if you can – A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian runs until 1 June.