“Beware the Ides of March,” announces Cassandra (Sara Powell), though Sonia (Rebecca Lacey) reminds her it is August. The warnings about this, that and the other keep coming in a play that doesn’t do things by halves. But only some of these warnings have any meaning by the curtain call, and frankly, the play could have dispensed without them altogether without affecting the overall outcome. Set in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, the play explores similar themes to the plays of Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) but in a contemporary setting. That there’s a Vanya (Michael Maloney) at all is because his parents named him after the title character in Uncle Vanya, though as his stepsister
Sonia points out, there was some bullying to be endured during their formative years from classmates who didn’t understand the literary references.
Masha (Janie Dee) is a celebrated actor, who has brought Spike (Charlie Maher) to the family home, a considerably younger man who likes to parade around wearing just his underwear. Completing the set of on-stage characters is Nina (Lukwesa Mwamba), who Spike finds whilst swimming outdoors, and invites her back to the house – which isn’t his own, such is his bravado. There’s an abrasive personality for the audience to love to hate – this is someone who believes himself to be the best at everything although he evidently isn’t better than the actors who actually get the parts he auditions for.
Nina, meanwhile, is gushing and starstruck on first meeting Masha, but is otherwise a rather underdeveloped character. Roped into attending a ‘costume party’ (the American term for a ‘fancy dress party’) and various other activities in the narrative, there’s not much revealed about her. The same could have been said for Vanya, were it not for a long scene some way into the second half, in which he waxes lyrical about how things were a generation ago, when spam was eaten, and one could count the number of available television channels with one hand.
Much of the show’s humour, alas, was somewhat lost on me. If only more of the kind of absurdist that manifested in Vanya’s play (that is, the show’s ‘play within the play’) had spilled over into the main plot, then it might have been more entertaining. If others find someone telling an estate agent on the phone that they’ve got the wrong number hilarious, that’s their prerogative. Not that I didn’t laugh at all: Lacey’s portrayal of Dame Maggie Smith’s Diane Barrie in the 1978 film California Suite was a hoot.
It’s the sort of show that feels like it’s been done too many times before. A group of middle-class people, a considerable distance above the poverty line, are moping about their lot in life and how their ‘problems’ are allegedly insurmountable. The show also feels rather older than it is: only when Spike takes out his ‘cell’ (mobile phone) in the second half does it become clear that it’s set in the modern era. Some of the characters come across as stereotypes – Masha’s successful career on stage and on screen, for instance, has done nothing for her feelings of insecurity, while Sonia is almost depression personified.
Much of the plot is predictable anyway, which amplifies the pointlessness of Cassandra’s predictions: if she’s half as good as she thinks she is, would she be so kind as to tell us the winning numbers for the next EuroMillions draw? The story is, at times, as static as the set, which never changes from the front room of the family home. The Chekhovian references are overdone – there’s a repeated insistence, for example, that a cluster of less than a dozen cherry trees constitutes an orchard (as in The Cherry Orchard). Just as well, then, that the cast are more than sufficiently engaging despite a relatively thin plot.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Vanya and his sister Sonia live a quiet life in the Pennsylvania farmhouse where they grew up. But their sister Masha escaped many years ago and became a famous movie star. Masha returns unannounced with her twenty-something toy boy, Spike, and so begins a And so begins a very particular weekend.
Christopher Durang’s irresistible comedy is one of the most lauded Broadway plays of recent years. Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike blends Chekhov’s famous ennui with the modern-day concerns of celebrity, social networking, planetary upheaval and the troubling onset of middle age, into a beloved comedy.
Joining the previously announced two time Olivier award-winner Janie Dee are Michael Maloney (‘The Crown’), Rebecca Lacey, Charlie Maher, Sara Powell and Lukwesa Mwamba.
Director: Walter Bobbie. Set Designer: David Korins. Costume Designer: Emily Rebholz. Sound Designer/Original Music: Mark Bennett. Casting: Ginny Schiller.
Producers: Steven M. Levy and Vaughan Williams for Charing Cross Theatre Productions Limited and Joey Parnes.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
by Christopher Durang
Directed by Walter Bobbie
Charing Cross Theatre
London WC2N 6NL
Friday 5 November – Saturday 8 January