Theatre Royal Windsor (venue)
03 July 2019 (released)
06 July 2021
Royce Ryton based his 1978 play The Anastasia File on the real life case of the woman who, having been rescued from drowning herself in a Berlin canal in 1920, went on to claim, throughout her life, that she was the Grand Duchess Anastasia, youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, sole survivor of the massacre of the Russian Royal family in 1918.
While those claims were later proved beyond doubt to have been false, this new production at the Theatre Royal Windsor nevertheless presents an absorbing detective story, as well as the enduring mystery of the woman’s own conviction about her identity. It is also thought provoking on the difficulties of verifying truths and falsehoods, especially when there are those with agendas who will seek to create and exploit particular narratives.
Jenny Seagrove brings real intensity to her portrayal of a woman that, whoever she may be, had certainly suffered great trauma at the hands of others, and she successfully balances vulnerability with the developing feistiness of this eccentric lady. One feels sympathetic discomfort at seeing her being variously interrogated, aggressively medicalised, and prodded to perform the learnt behaviours of the ruling classes. Ms Seagrove maintains a quite convincing Russian accent throughout, although I felt this provided some incongruity in the early scenes where the German medical staff spend some time attempting to discern her nationality, when it seems perfectly obvious to the audience.
The intensity of that performance is further focussed by the austere set, a modern, institutionalised contrast to the opulent living of the old aristocracy, with just the Imperial Russian Eagle looming in the background to evoke the past. Her simple nightie-like dress and bare feet are a constant reminder of how defenceless she remains, as if she is perpetually an in-patient even after having left the confines of the hospital.
Andrew Lancel’s detectives, father and son, are rather earnest, and although, in the case of the father, we are watching a German police officer of the 1920s, no doubt normally a person of conservative and serious outlook, I felt his delivery and demeanour was occasionally a little stiff, considering, I think, he was supposed to feel like he was her friend.
All of the other characters, including medical and legal staff, and multiple Russian aristocrats, were played by Richard Winsor and Rosie Thomson, both of whom did sterling jobs of switching in and out of both costumes and accents, as they exit and enter the stage to make further demands upon, or to try to help, our poor enigmatic Anna.
The Anastasia File is in itself a relatively entertaining and stimulating enough play, but I believe that on its opening night, this production certainly succeeded at intriguing and gripping the audience throughout, being particularly driven by the impressively vivid central performance.