Actor Andrew Byron devised his one-man show, The Good Russian, in response to the many bad Russians he’s played across his career. In the opening moments of the show, he plays out a typical day of shooting, in which he takes direction to make his turn as a Russian ganglord sound scarier. He drops the act and notes that for his part, he’s never met a nasty Russian in real life. For once, he tells the audience as he wiggles out of his tie and black button down, replacing them with a striped tank and colourful windbreaker, he wants to tell a story about the kind of decent, generous Russians he’s known in his lifetime.
Surprisingly funny, and completely charming
Cue his transformation into Innokenty Afanasievich. Innokenty is a kind-hearted, down-on-his-luck Siberian, who sells his freshly dead father’s first edition copy of War and Peace to finance a move to England, where he hopes to pursue his dream of becoming an actor and marry an 'English rose'. We first meet Innokenty in an Exeter police station, where he’s less distressed about the interrogation he’s undergoing than freeing the spider that has wandered into his palm in the holding room. It’s hard to shake the unease of the situation. This introduction begs us to ask ourselves what Innokenty might be hiding, and as the story of his parents’ untimely deaths unfold, and his practical reaction to it, it’s hard not to be suspicious. But then the story dips into flashback, and soon, as we travel across England with Innokenty in search of work, we get to know him. His warm heart softens our defences, and Bryon, through Innokenty and a host of other characters he plays single-handedly, begins to chip away at the audiences’ preconceived notions about Russia, England, and immigration at large.
The Good Russian is a surprisingly funny, and completely charming story carried by Byron’s impeccable characterisation and accent work. Like magic, he convincingly populates the entire village of Brentford, where Innokenty eventually settles down to work for room and board at a pub, through a range of accents and physicalities. Byron glides fluidly between the maternal Irish lady Trish and her mildly intolerant Scottish husband Ritchie, shady Australian barkeep Sheedy, tough-but-lovely American Laura, and an impressive range of regional British accents within Brentford’s local am-dram company. All the while, Innokenty’s confessional narration ferries us through the story; this good Russian is our constant, honest and affable guide. He doles out loveable idiosyncratic asides; stories about idealistic arguments in Siberia that resulted in free mechanic services, silly and somehow sweet re-enactments of beheading chickens; commentary on the strangeness of the internet and the strange differences between Russia and Britain. At one point, when Innokenty rescues an imaginary snail from beneath Laura’s bike tire, he reached across the fourth wall and placed it in my partner’s open palm.
Bryron’s script flashes back and forth between village life and the police interrogation where we started. We see Innokenty’s boss at the pub questioned about his internet use, and it’s hard not to wonder if we were wrong to trust him. Eventually, following a discussion between Innokenty and Laura about immigration (filmed for what Innokenty calls 'Slapchat') the purpose for Innokenty’s questioning becomes clear. So too does the apparent thesis of Byron’s play, which certainly takes shots at those who hide their selfish motivations for immigration reform beneath claims they’re acting for the good of their community.
I’ll stop short of giving away Innokenty’s fate, but I’m delighted to say that the show was altogether warmer and more optimistic than I expected. I left with a kindling of hope where I’d anticipated an unsettling twist or tragic end. My only real complaint is that the play cuts itself abruptly short. I would have liked a few more minutes to languish in the sweet conclusion, since a truly optimistic yet well-earned end feels like such a rare gem in new plays these days.
In all, The Good Russian does exactly as Byron intended: the play opens our hearts to a character we’re hardwired to distrust, and Byron does this with style, skill, and overwhelming empathy. I’ll hope to see him play more good Russians in the future.