Anyone worried about low productivity in the British economy will be heartened to learn that things are far worse elsewhere. If this play by Pavel Pryazhko at the Soho theatre is telling the truth, productivity on apple farms in Belarus is around zero and is falling fast.
Pryazhko's play is a neat little comedy about our human capacity to screw up the simplest, most straightforward tasks. Picking apples and stacking them in crates should be fairly easy, but earnest Valerii, doltish Egor and their fetching female co-workers Ira and Lyuba manage to ruin everything they touch.
There's a soundtrack of birdsong and Soviet-style jaunty music of the kind that used to accompany documentaries about cheerful collective farm workers. But this harvest is set in an indeterminate present, devoid of political, economic or social reference points. We don't learn anything about either the farm or about the characters on stage, except that they are there to pick apples. And they fail.
Team leader Valerii (Dyfan Dwyfor) tries to direct proceedings but proves his total incompetence at every turn. Egor (favourite word: COOL!) thinks he knows better, but when it comes to keeping the apples unbruised and repairing a crate with a hammer and nails, he is also several pips short of the minimum level required.
The two women (Beth Park and Lindsey Campbell) pout and flirt but mostly accept their subordinate status in this east European garden of Eden. With apples passing from hand to hand, there's an erotic subtext to the play which is rich in comedy, though ultimately it's not developed enough to raise the stakes.
Translated by Sasha Dugdale and directed by former RSC artistic director Michael Boyd, the play depends more on old-fashioned physical comedy and timing than on character. The men seem to me better delineated than the women, and in a work that lasts only an hour, there's not much time for character development. Although it's funny and I laughed a lot, it doesn't have the subtlety of a full-length comedy like Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party.
By the end of the play most of the apples and the crates have been flung around the stage, narrowly missing the audience, but the damage to the characters is fairly superficial -- a bleeding thumb, an allergical reaction and a bout of high blood pressure. From the pen of a playwright with a darker imagination, it could all have been a lot more painful.