THE ANASTASIA FILE
by Royce Ryton
Directed by Lisa Barker
Altrincham Little Theatre
Most of us like a good mystery, a “who-done-it” or a mystery that sparks the imagination that often leads to conspiracy theories, or a story that takes on a life of its own but is never solved. The Anastasia File is a play based on a true story that captured the world’s attention and created interest in the early twentieth century.
The story centres around one of the last Russian Tsars daughters, Princess Anastasia Romanov, and the question of what happened to her. Did she die with the rest of the imperial family, or did she survive the massacre in 1918, escaping Russia with the aid of soldiers and those sympathetic to the royal family, and then found in a German asylum in 1920?
The tale of Anastasia Romanov has transfixed people for over a century. It has been recreated in various mediums for new audiences to understand: books, plays, ballets, a TV series, an animated film version by Fox studios in 1997, and latterly as a full Broadway musical.
While many of the story representations are soft and fluffy, this play by Royce Ryton is much darker and is based around factual encounters during the 1920s. We were introduced to Anastasia as Mrs Manahan – her married name in her later life – as she is interviewed by an inspector in the 1980s who wants to close the case that his father had been investigating all those years previously. The audience was taken back in time to 1920s Berlin, to an asylum where a patient claimed to be Anastasia. She described her life at the Royal court and how she escaped the Bolsheviks. The details and descriptions are so accurate and convincing that they capture the interest of medical experts, the press, the surviving Imperial Russian family members, servants, family friends and the public. But is she really who she claims to be or is she a very clever manipulator of people, and ultimately an imposter?
The set, designed by Polina Sparks and Alan Reidsma, was extremely stark and devoid of colour, not what one would expect from this society, but it was very effective in achieving the desired result. The lighting plot, by Steve Smith, added to this with a quite bright, white light but then, at times, softening to blue. By painting the whole set, and few items of furniture, grey, it made the audience focus on the characters and what they had to say. The only aspects of décor were a family tree of the royal family, and some newspaper articles artfully stencilled on the scenery. The wardrobe department had thought about costume, and at times, some of the colours really stood out against the muted background. There were four entrances and exits within the set design along with three different staging platforms. These helped the show flow with ease from scene to scene.
This play is very wordy which meant there was a lot of dialogue for the five actors to deliver, with three of them playing a plethora of different characters, all of whom helped to tell the story and give a sense of time progression.
Kathryn Fennell, as Mrs Manahan (Anastasia) had to transition from an old lady to a younger self, sixty years younger, and then back to her older self by the conclusion of the play. Kathryn did this very effectively. As the young Anastasia in the asylum, she evolved from a nervous, reticent person to one that trusted the people around her. At this point she offers bits of information about herself, which cause those around her to question who she really is. This meant that she got really feisty and angry when she thought people didn’t believe her. During the course of the play, especially during the scenes set in America, you got a sense that the character was relaxed in the knowledge that she had convinced the people that mattered, and that what she had said was true. At the end we saw a woman who had given up on pressing her claim, and had become tired of the questioning.
Malcom Cooper, as the original Inspector, and also as his son continuing his father’s work, had to change characters quite subtly. As the elder character he was quite caring and compassionate with Anastasia, believing that she was who she claimed to be. As his son, while being gentle of approach, there was a cautiousness to the character, one that wasn’t going to take everything said at face value, and was a little more sceptical.
All other parts were performed by three actors: Stephen Moss, Christine Perry and Cherill Wyche. Each actor had obviously spent time and effort in creating a persona for each and everyone of them, and to deliver the dialogue. There was, of course, changes of costume that must have kept the wardrobe team busy back stage. Many of the changes were as simple as a different coat or a hat. This play moves at such a pace that there is little time for full changes. However, that does not create the whole character, one needs to get inside the person, how they will present themselves, walk, talk, sound, and the behaviours they display, so that each is distinct and unique. I was especially impressed by Cherill’s and Kathryn’s discussion in Russian. I have no idea if this was accurate, but they certainly sounded convincing to me. I am sure that the director, Lisa Barker, encouraged them in this. All the actors are to be congratulated for their characterisation, bravo!
This subject matter has intrigued people for decades, and it was only possible with the discovery of DNA, and how to use it, that the mystery of Anastasia was finally brought to a conclusion in 2008. I won’t reveal the outcome, but you could research it for yourself if you so wished, or you can continue to ponder the mystery some more.
Thank you for a most thought-provoking telling of a story that has come in and out of my mind since I was a small child.