Snoo Wilson, Gary Kemp and Guy Pratt (adapted from Vladimir Mayakovsky)
The Lowry 13 May 2016
There's a joke about a snobbish yet misguided grammarian correcting the title of "Les Misérables" to "Fewer Misérables". If that's the kind of punning on socialist revolutionary history that you enjoy, Bedbug may be the satirical musical for you – it tells the story of Ivan Varlet's journey from idealistic poverty in 1920s Russia to a 1970s socialist utopia where everyone is a shiny-haired, disease-free robot. Bluecoat's large cast of young people gives us a rendition that is surprisingly entertaining despite the script's pages and pages of wordy satire (about such topics as state versus private enterprise, how to make sure your wedding is the correct mixture of bourgeois and proletariat, and the price of salted herring).
There are some standout performances, particularly from Ivan's bourgeois wedding-planner, who teaches him that the best thing about revolution is climbing the social ladder. Ivan and his love interest, the unfortunate Comrade Zoya, have some very touching moments both in spoken scenes and in song. One grubby socialist mechanic sings with beautiful plaintiveness about how the path of revolution didn't end in utopia, but in a wall. The actor given the part of Mayakovsky, the original author of Bedbug, has the job of showing us the poet's tortured, dystopian political dreams (and they really are tortured) – he pulls it off admirably. Perhaps some editing could have spared the cast from struggling with the script's more egregiously verbose moments: at times it was heavy on the satire, but too light on the comedy.
But it's worth sticking around for the payoff when Ivan finds himself in the future, having been cryogenically frozen and then resurrected by a lab full of identikit people who have evolved far beyond his "neanderthal" humanity in the intervening fifty years. The lab's machines are represented by the scientists themselves, who move back and forth, whoosh and hiss, brilliantly showing us just how robotic the socialist utopia has made them. There's no place for his boozing, his individuality, or the bedbugs living in his trousers. What is he to do?
By the time Ivan reaches his final dilemma, there is tension and pathos as we watch him find his place in the new world. Conveyed in a touching and entertaining style, the play ultimately delivers the message intended about individuality and imperfection in the face of ideology. While scenes of class struggle and societal confusion go some way towards showing us that message, in the end it's the human story which brings it home.
Reviewer: Lizz Clark