REVIEW: Russian Dolls (King’s Head Theatre)

Russian Dolls was shortlisted for the Bruntwood Prize in 2013 before winning the Adrian Pagan award last year. Based on the real-life story of an Islington version of Hilda, Kate Lock’s new drama about an unlikely friendship discusses how society treats its most vulnerable members – the very young and the old.

HIlda is in her seventies. She suddenly turned blind some time ago but she still manages to live alone, although social services would like to see her in a home in Basingstoke. HIlda is not so inclined: “Just because you are blind, they don’t care where they move you.” Camelia has just been released from a young offender’s institution. She needs some money and quickly, Hilda is the perfect mark.

Pretending to be the substitute for Hilda’s carer, she cleans out her flat. Later she returns with most of Hilda’s valuables, expecting her to call the police so she can be safe and secure in the young offender’s home again. Luckily for her, HIlda knows that Camelia’s sentence would be a bit more severe now that the girl is seventeen and a repeat offender and she does not call anybody. Hilda used to be a foster mother for problem children and knows only too well what teenagers like Camelia are going through. She offers Camelia a chance and the girl reluctantly accepts, but then something happens that challenges their relationship and their friendship.

Although Kate Lock’s intelligent and witty play touches on many important issues, it does not preach. Camelia comes from a broken home – no father, a drug addict mother with a drug dealer boyfriend who has children but does not give them any affection or care, yet Camelia is fiercely loyal to her mother. Should the government take children like Camelia away from their biological mothers and let their foster parents adopt them? A very touchy and controversial subject. Meanwhile Hilda is threatened with a care home of a different kind.

Hamish MacDougall’s production holds your attention from the moment Mollie Lambert’s Camelia enters. Interacting with the audience, she talks about her final moments in the young offender’s home. The “social”, who is always crying, is already waiting to bother her and Camelia wonders why somebody would go to university to become a person everybody hates. She cons her way into Hilda’s flat, nicely furnished with a few photographs and trinkets on the shelves, including Russian dolls which become part of Camelia’s loot and play an important part in the drama.

Mollie Lambert’s Camelia is a spirited girl with a lot of spunk. Although she has gone through traumatic experiences, she puts these nightmarish events behind her and tries to get on with her life. Stephanie Fayerman plays Hilda without any sentimentality. Having been a foster carer for 23 years, she readily takes Camelia under her wing, trying to prepare the girl for a better life. Yet Hilda is very stubborn in her own way and unwilling to compromise on issues that are important to her.
A powerful play with two great actors.

Reviewed by: Carolin Kopplin
Photo: Andreas Grieger

Russian Dolls is playing at King’s Head Theatre until 23rd April