The back story to 'Fortune's Fool' makes a somewhat soap opera-ish comedy of manners political rather than just petty. Turgenev's play was banned when he first tried to publish it in 1848. The Russian censors didn't like the fact it exposed the pettiness and vulnerabilities of the rural gentry, and by extension quietly criticised the wider Russian social system.
The world Turgenev depicts is one he knew well – he hailed from an estate far grander than the one in the play, boasting 5,000 serfs and a despotic mother. Four years after Fortune's Fool was banned, the writer found himself imprisoned and then exiled to this estate for writing an admiring obituary of Gogol. Turgenev was producing work in a revolutionary era that loaded everything with extra potency.
We live in less potent times. But the play does have something of an edge right now as it's the first time it's ever been staged in London's West End. In fact Fortune's Fool was pretty much lost until Mike Poulton, via a bored bookish friend, stumbled upon it. Poulton's lively adaptation, which was a hit in the US, has finally found its way to our shores.
Sometimes a play is so absorbing you forget it's make believe. That's never the case here. It depicts a world where show and surface are all, and the characters follow such strict social rules it's like they are all merely pretending to live. None of them has enough depth to make you truly care about them, but they are entertaining enough. And it's always fun to see the upper classes looking ridiculous.
The play's original Russian title translates as 'hanger on', and the story charts the fate of such a sponger, a gentleman called Kuzovkin. He's lived in another family's house for 30 years but the daughter's recent marriage and return to her country pile makes his future uncertain.
Enter the sweet young couple, swiftly followed by an outrageous neighbour and his fishy sidekick. Add some bickering below-stairs staff and oodles of booze and you've got yourself an explosion. Iain Glen as Kuzovkin is suitably mawkish and Richard McCabe as the interfering neighbour Tropatchov is as wildly vile as he can be.
The daughter's parentage is called into question as events turn from hammy to decidedly sinister towards the end of the first half. The truth will out, socially acceptable cover stories are devised, and people are paid off. Humiliation hangs thick in the air, hastily buttered over with politeness. Thankfully, even that cracks in the end.
Fortune's Fool plays at the Old Vic, The Cut, SE1 8NB until the 22 February 2014. Tickets £11-£75. Londonist saw this play on a complimentary review ticket.