It’s been many years since I’ve seen any Chekhov, so I was feeling a bit rusty on Russian plays when I attended this show. I need not have worried. Although the production alludes to some of his typical characters and situations and even wording, it is worlds away from the dark, heavy-going play you may be expecting. This production is more like a farce with a soupçon of panto, having been briefly dipped in Chekhov.
The story is set in a Pennsylvanian country house where two siblings reside: Vanya (Michael Maloney) and Sonia (Rebecca Lacey). They have spent the last few years caring for elderly parents, who have since passed away. This has all been financed by a third sibling: a Hollywood actress, Masha, played by Janie Dee. The play sees her arriving for a rare visit to attend a fancy-dress party at a neighbour’s house. She brings her toy boy, Spike (Charlie Maher) along for sex, adoration and general ego-stroking but doesn’t plan for him to befriend a visiting young actress, Nina (Lukwesa Mwanba) who hero-worships Masha but is also a threat due to her youth and purity.
The plot twists and turns are predicted by the larger-than-life psychic housemaid Cassandra (Sara Powell).
With a cast of six, everyone turns in strong performances and each gets their dedicated moment in the limelight. Dee is wonderfully acerbic and self-obsessed; ironically Masha’s costume for the party is Snow White, her polar opposite to this characterisation. Famous for a string of lowly horror films, she feels she has missed her chance to prove herself as a serious thespian and is very conscious of the march of time.
The action builds steadily through the first act as everyone establishes themselves, but the second act seems patchier and doesn’t flow quite so well. Maloney is a steady and accommodating Vanya until the character’s composure finally breaks in the second act, at which point his rant does seem to go on a bit. He’s balanced by Lacey as Sonia, who shoots straight from the hip and gives the audience plenty of laughs when she refuses to dress as a dwarf for Masha. Instead, she entertainingly gets glammed up to play the wicked stepmother in a tiara, but to overcome her social anxiety she has to impersonate Maggie Smith.
Maher’s Spike has the farcical energy of a Duracell bunny, constantly bouncing around, often with minimal clothing, showing off his youthful and athletic, toned body.
Meanwhile, the plot is helped along by Powell as Cassandra, the stroppy cleaning lady. Prone to prolonged outbursts of melodramatic prophecies she is nevertheless protective of Sonia and Vanya and attempts to protect them with voodoo, which is highly amusing.
On the whole, this is an entertaining evening with a quality cast. If you feel at all daunted about taking on Chekhov (but you really shouldn’t) do have a read of the programme where the writer Christopher Durang discusses the impact that the Russian playwright has had on him and his work. You may find it reassuring.
Written by: Christopher Durang
Directed by: Walter Bobbie
Produced by: Steven M. Levy and Vaughan Williams for Charing Cross Theatre Productions Limited and Joey Parnes.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike plays at Charing Cross Theatre until 8 January. Further information and booking via the below link.