A Little Hero’s subversive power is contextually enormous. As it contains frank discussions of homosexuality, under Russia’s 2013 so-called ‘gay propaganda’ laws, the magazine it originally appeared in must be sold in a black plastic cover with a note announcing that it contains information unsuitable for under-18s.
Valeriy Pecheykin’s little hero, closeted homophobe Vovochka (Simon Stallard), leads a campaign against his gay neighbours as a young boy, with the result that they endure anonymous abuse and harassment. By the time he is a teenager, Vovochka is part of an anti-queer vigilante gang violently targeting gay men. Despite this, Vovochka is in love with his childhood friend Vanya (Max Baker), and is tortured by his desire.
John Turiano and Zhenya Pomerantsev have done their best with the translation, but Pecheykin’s awkward script putters between audience address, dialogue and characters narrating their own action. Bafflingly juvenile slapstick comedy stumbles against declamatory speeches that feel insincere despite the vitriol of their content. Occasional flashes of aching sadness spark against the grime, but the script is largely a strained gesture towards a hard reality. Even the neon graffiti, sprayed in an almost propless set, feels more like a Camden Town Banksy rip-off than urban tags.
Stallard, Baker and Shona Graham’s Lyuobochka suffer from having to play young children in an unworkably contrived script, though Jamie Foulkes and Tris Hobson fare much better as the couple whose lives are ruined by Vovochka’s machinations, imparting heart-rending poignancy to their love story. This English-language rescue of a suppressed play is an ethical triumph but unfortunately not a convincing production.