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Describe the Night review at Hampstead Theatre, London – ‘not short of ambition’

Siena Kelly and Ben Caplan in Describe the Night at Hampstead Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Rajiv Joseph’s new play is not short of ambition. It spans the best part of a century, the location hops all around Eastern Europe and it leaps backwards and forwards in time, all the while exploring the ways in which myth and history interlink.

Describe the Night, an Iron Curtain odyssey receiving its UK premiere at Hampstead Theatre, sets out its stall with a scene about storytelling. In 1920’s Poland, Jewish writer Isaac Babel (Ben Caplan) and Soviet officer Nikolai (David Birrell) – destined to become head of the Soviet secret police – talk about the line between lies and fiction as both men attempt to describe the night sky.

The play then zigzags magnificently through history. There are moments of magic realism, including a scene in which the characters ingest a psychotropic soup made from leeches and a subplot about a young KGB agent called Vova (Steve John Shepherd in a bad, blond wig) who bears an intentional resemblance to the current Russian president. Babel’s diary links the scenes together, a line of ink connecting the dead with the living, the past with the present.

The performances are solid enough – Birrell and Shepherd are particularly good – and Polly Sullivan’s set, a towering backdrop of filing cabinets topped with a cubist Soviet apartment block and pocked with whirring tape decks, is effective at generating atmosphere.

But Lisa Spirling’s production feels far less bold than the material. The play is a complex cocktail of truth and fiction, soothsaying and censorship, real incident (the 2010 plane crash that wiped out the Polish parliament) and fictionalised backstory. But this staging somehow contrives to make it feel flat.

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Ambitious, decades-spanning play exploring truth, myth and history, undermined by a timid production