By Harry Mottram: Axbridge is a long way from Ukraine. But Geography was irrelevant when two evacuee Ukrainians went out of their way to see a production of a play written by one of their compatriots in the town.

Axbridge Community Theatre staged Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol’s The Government Inspector in the town hall during the week of 22-25 November, 2023. Sitting in the audience on the second night were evacuees Anna Shelest and Katrina Bykovchenko who had both studied the text at school before the war changed their lives. During the interval they noticed one of the cast had a Ukrainian name – Maринa (Marina) Kirichenko who is also exiled from Ukraine who played the doctor in the comedy drama set in what was then Tsarist Russia.

The Town Crier Nigel Scott invited the two onto the stage at the end of the evening to join the cast for a photograph and to meet Marina.

Katina, Marina, Nigel Scott and Anna

Anna said: “I came to England at the start of the war in April 2022, when I stayed with a host family before moving to Weston-super-Mare and I now work at Bristol University in the student administration department. I really appreciate what British people have done for us Ukrainians – for your hospitality and to help us realise our potential here. We love Somerset but initially I was staying in a little village – but being from a big city I felt a bit trapped as I don’t drive. But Somerset is absolutely stunning – so beautiful.”

Anna’s parents are still in Ukraine which is a huge worry for her while her daughter and sister have moved to Canada. She said: “My heart is just torn apart.”

As for the play Katina (who is staying in Sandford) said the play had been a ‘perfect experience’ as it was very English, very funny and very interesting – as she had not seen the play since she was at school. She said: “It was amazing and ironic. Now we are open for anything – to experience England.”

But inevitably there is a dark side to their lives as Anna’s home city of Kyiv has been repeatedly hit by rockets and drone bombs and was perilously close to being occupied by the Russian army in the spring of 2022. As for Katina’s home city of Kharkiv there has been massive damage with thousands left homeless as the Russian forces bombarded the city before eventually being driven back.

She said: “When the Russians occupied part of our city at the start of the war, I was pregnant and hiding in a basement. Then we managed to come to England where our hosts in Winscombe helped us to start again. People have been very kind and our hosts have showed us England and it is beautiful.”

For pharmacist Maринa the situation is also heart-breaking – her husband is in the Ukrainian army while she lives in Cheddar with her daughter having been sponsored to come to the UK by Sonia Chery who is also in the cast of the play. Marina’s sister is a doctor in Ukraine and has been serving with the army on the front line – but hopes to visit her in Cheddar this week and to see her sister on stage in Axbridge.

Town Crier Nigel Scott said the celebrated play had been widely advertised and the duo had been determined to see ‘a small piece of Ukraine in a very English setting’. The drama of mistaken identities and a satire on officialdom, local Government and small-town corruption, has been performed ever since it was first written in 1836 due to its universality – striking a chord with audiences around the world.

David Parkin, the director of Axbridge Community Theatre’s The Government Inspector said it was about bringing the community together to celebrate theatre and introduce new people to drama following last year’s Axbridge Pageant – and having the Ukrainians come along to see the play had certainly made it all worthwhile.

Axbridge Review is edited by Harry Mottram and is published for the interest of himself and fellow residents.

Harry is a freelance journalist. Follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube etc