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Vaudevilles and Other Sketches, Jermyn Street Theatre

Anton Chekhov 
Translated and adapted by Michael Frayn 
Directed by Jenny Eastop 

Pros: Seamlessly staged and well-acted, with six different mini plays to get your teeth into.

Cons: The sketch format meant there was, perhaps, an unsatisfying lack of investment in the characters.

Our Verdict: A very professional production that will be accessible and enjoyable to most, but which as a consequence didn’t particularly push any boundaries.

Courtesy of Jermyn Street Theatre

When I was at school, I once wrote a sketch for the end of year show. It involved getting a load of kids on stage dressed as animals and singing Old MacDonald Had a Farm. The twist was that ‘Old MacDonald’ was a psychotic animal-testing scientist who went round massacring the animals while they belted out their melodies. Needless to say, it was never performed. And I’m still bitter.

Thankfully, Chekhov’s Vaudevilles steered clear of any forms of animal cruelty. Translated and adapted by Michael Frayn, it presented six varied and humorous sketches concerning subjects ranging from irritating wannabes to mocking the French. Suffice to say, things haven’t exactly moved on since 1888.

For each half of the show, two short sketches precede a longer, more involved story. In part one, the final piece was called The Bear. It was about a feeble, cuckolded widow determined to mourn her husband for the rest of her life, despite his known womanizing whilst alive. When one of his creditors, Smirnov, turns up asking for money, an intricate and amusing scene unfolds.

The second half ended with a piece called The Proposal. Lomov, a nervous hypochondriac, has visited his neighbour’s house to ask him for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Like The Bear, and in fact like most well-crafted sketches, things don’t turn out as expected. And so, humour ensues.

For me, these were by far the most enjoyable of the six performances, the reason being that they were, by nature, richer and more substantial in content than the shorter sketches. The characters evolved over the course these vignettes, allowing the audience to enjoy a more fulfilling comedic experience. It was just a shame that they were not even more developed. In all six pieces, no sooner had the absurdity of the scene been established than the piece fairly swiftly came to an end. This left me feeling slightly empty, as I readied myself for the next sketch and the next bunch of characters to get my head round.

But enough of me criticizing one of the most celebrated writers of the 19th Century and his esteemed modern-day adaptor, and indeed, it really is only a personal opinion. Plenty of others in the sell-out audience enjoyed the structure of the evening. The acting was spot on: sometimes suitably hammy – these were larger than life characters that needed over-the-top interpretations – at other times hilariously serious. Props go especially to Ben Higgins for his portrayal of the greatly confused misogynist Smirnov, aka ‘the Bear’ (clearly this was not the 1980s San Francisco usage of the term). Each sketch was introduced by a character from the previous sketch, giving the whole show a neat consistency. Some of the sketches appeared to be adapted short stories that were perhaps never intended to be performed, in which case the directing and staging cleverly brought them to life.

All in all it was an enjoyable night of theatre that’s sure to put a smile on most people’s faces. Despite being written well over one hundred years ago, the subject matter was very relevant: love, business, authority. For my personal taste, though, as a piece of writing it was a tad too safe, unsurprising given when it was written. I felt it needed an injection of surreal: something bizarre and ridiculous. But maybe not a bunch of dead animals.

Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!

Vaudevilles and Other Sketches runs at Jermyn Street Theatre until 29th June 2013.
Box Office: 020 7287 2875 or book online at https://www.eticketing.co.uk/jermynstreettheatre/default.aspx

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