A silent film from the Soviet Union is unusual source material for a musical. Although I haven’t seen Abram Room’s 1927 film Bed and Sofa, it’s easy to see why the subject matter caused controversy, with a portrayal of a ménage a trois, abortion (which is still something of a taboo subject in films today) and, according to librettist Laurence Klavan, the question of what a ‘free’ society is. The last point is perhaps less obvious in this re-telling.
This musical adaptation by composer Polly Pen and librettist Laurence Klavan has arrived in London fifteen years after its premiere Off-Broadway, where it received seven Drama Desk nominations. While the cosy Finborough Theatre is an ideal venue for a chamber musical with a domestic setting (a typically lovely Finborough design by David Woodhead, with the musicians on the roof), it’s difficult for director Luke Sheppard to overcome the fact that the show is sustained on one recurring joke (who gets the bed, and who gets the sofa). Although there are a number of interesting themes to explore, they’re suppressed underneath the veneer of whimsy.
The setting is Moscow in 1926, in the midst of a housing shortage. Volodya, a young man with “blonde hair and a sensitive face” arrives in the city to take a job as a newspaper printer (there are some hints of radicalism that are never explored), and finds himself homeless. His old friend Kolya comes to the rescue, offering him the sofa in the cramped apartment he shares with his wife Ludmilla. When Kolya is transferred to Rostov for a few weeks, Volodya and Ludmilla fall in love over a trip to the cinema. Kolya soon learns that his place is now on the sofa, but can’t leave due to the housing shortage. Ludmilla inevitably falls pregnant and rather than being pressurised into having an abortion, she walks out to start a new life, leaving the two men in a state of resigned amusement.
The transformation of a silent film into a musical is most successful when directly paying homage to the genre, offering some witty pastiches of the music that accompany the films that give Ludmilla so much pleasure (while she is in a version of one herself- how confusingly meta). The ‘Bed and Sofa’ refrain is certainly memorable as it accounts for a large percentage of the text. Taking the place of the title cards is the all-knowing Announcer, sharing various witticisms and tips for harmonious living under the Soviet regime, though I wouldn’t imagine the voice of Communism to have the quintessentially English headmistress-y tones of Penelope Keith.
Kaisa Hammarlund gives a thoughtful performance as the housewife longing for romance and finally independence, while Alastair Parker is bear-like and boorish as the cuckolded roofer Kolya and Alastair Brookshaw is aptly fresh-faced as Volodya. An uncomplicated plot doesn’t have to make for diluted drama. Bed and Sofa doesn’t feel complete because the characters never become anything more than archetypes. There is something charmingly quirky about this piece that could have been distilled into a pithy twenty-minute sketch. Stretched out over nearly an hour and a half, however, the joke wears very thin indeed.