Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike – Charing Cross Theatre, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Writer: Christopher Durang

Director: Walter Bobbie

At the start of Christopher Durang’s erratic farce, siblings Vanya and Sonia – hobbled, like their sister Masha, with Russian names by their Chekhov-loving parents – describe their ennui and their stuck lives together to each other as if they have just sprung into existence at curtain up, rather than living in the same family home for decades.

It seems at first to be less of a pastiche of Chekhov than of poor imitations of the same; at least, one assumes it’s a parody of bad expositional dialogue. Michael Maloney and Rebecca Lacey make good work of the squabbling siblings, though, enlivening their opening scenes until the paper-thin dialogues wraps around characters of flesh and bone.

The arrival, first, of Sara Powell’s psychic cleaner Cassandra – who, like her namesake, is accurate yet never believed – and then Janie Dee’s Masha elevates the comedy up to broad farce levels. Dee in particular, playing an aging, Arkadina-like actress who feels she would have been the finest stage actress of her time had she just had the roles, is clearly having a blast and, with a wink and a nod to the audience, defies anyone to have less fun than she is.

That the actress has a young, barely intelligent toy boy (Charlie Maher’s Spike) in tow is hardly breaking the boundaries of farcical convention, but Maher’s puppy dog energy hits the right notes of Walter Bobbie’s fizzing direction.

Less successful is Lukwesa Mwamba’s Nina, a young wannabe actress from a neighbouring home who persuades Vanya to let her perform his symbolist play, in which she plays a molecule lamenting the climate change-induced death of the Earth. The implication is that, as an actress, Nina is not all that good: however, the performance Bobbie elicits from Mwamba makes so little distinction between Nina’s onstage and offstage personas that Mwamba’s performance sits ill alongside her more senior fellow cast members.

While one may not need a knowledge of Chekhov to appreciate Durang’s play, even a passing acquaintance will cause a flicker of recognition in the play’s nods to the Russian writer’s four great plays. From the themes of aging, possible property sales, and characters who are too self-obsessed to appreciate how their closest family members are hurting, to more on-the-nose references (such as a discussion as whether the house’s clump of cherry trees could comfortably constitute an orchard), Durang has fun laying affectionate nods to the playwright in the paths of his characters.

But what helps to elevate proceeding beyond either a knockabout farce or a series of thespian in-jokes are a pair of startling monologues. The first sees a great turn from Lacey, whose self-hating Sonia has only come out of her shell by attending a costume party as Maggie Smith’s character from California Suite. As she takes a phone call from an admirer, she finally realises that she can allow herself to be liked, even loved.

The second is a blistering monologue by Maloney. Vanya, perturbed by Spike’s inattention during Nina’s performance of his play, rails against modern media and its gearing toward short attention spans, wishing instead for the simple pleasure of his youth, even though as a gay man there was so much hardship in those times.

It is in those moments that Durang finally channels the real Chekhov, rather than the imitations of bad Chekhov that opens the piece. As the sparring siblings find peace with each other, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike leaves us with a play that is a good quality farce with a real heart.

Continues until 8 January 2022

The Reviews Hub Score

Farce with a Chekhovian twist

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