wed 08/12/2021

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Charing Cross Theatre review - Tony-winning play checks out Chekhov | reviews, news & interviews

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Charing Cross Theatre review - Tony-winning play checks out Chekhov

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Charing Cross Theatre review - Tony-winning play checks out Chekhov

Super London debut for Russian-inspired Broadway comedy

Entourage, indeed: the cast of 'Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike'Marc Brenner

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike has taken eight years to reach the London stage, which is surprisingly long for the Tony Award winner for Best Play of 2013: the pandemic, unsurprisingly, didn't help.

But in a burst of somewhat un-Chekhovian confidence, here it now is re-cast from a previous run in Bath, and the wait has been worth it.  

Vanya and Sonia live in a rural Pennsylvania idyll with nothing to do except bicker about morning coffee and wait for the blue heron to land at their pond and demonstrate the urgent purpose that they have long abandoned. Their idle lifestyles are supported by their movie-star-on-the-slide sister, Masha (Janie Dee, pictured below with Michael Maloney), whose financial generosity is killing them with kindness even as her vituperative tongue kills them with meanness. She brings along a toyboy, Spike, whose reluctance to wear a T-shirt (or, in fact, much of anything at all) catches the gay Vanya’s eye. And when Spike spots local kid Nina, an aspiring actress with all the optimism and can-do that these older siblings lack, an uneasy peace unravels.

Janie Dee and Michael Maloney as Masha and VanyaThe writer, Christopher Durang, explains in the programme how he has lived a whole life with Chekhov’s works rolling around in his head, and there are times his temptation to indulge in pastiche threatens to overpower his play. Happily, two facts work in his favour. First, there are but four plays you need to know in order to get the avalanche of in-jokes and parallel situations that run through the script - and you don’t need to know any of them all that well. Secondly, Chekhov may well have written specific, unforgettable characters but he also wrote of the human condition in general. We laugh and wince as much at ourselves as we do at the antics on stage.   

All this layering, cross-referencing and tightrope walking between the comic and the tragic requires skilful actors who can sidestep an extended version of the old favourite Whose Line Is It Anyway game, Theatre Styles. The director, Walter Bobbie, best-known for the long-running Chicago, ensures that we never quite go there, though we do come perilously close at times.

Sara Powell’s cleaning woman, Cassandra, is the only character without any obvious literary parallel - she’s more Madame Arcati than anyone from Chekhov, and Powell (pictured below) hams it up (perhaps a tad too broadly) as the uncannily accurate foreteller forever staring into the stalls. Lukwesa Mwamba is delightful in her West End debut, injecting just the right level of hope and genuine love for her craft into Nina, balancing out Charlie Maher’s hilarious himbo posturing as Spike, who nearly got a part in Entourage 2.

Sara Powell as Cassandra in Christopher Durang's comedyThe emotional heft comes from the three siblings. Dee has a lot of fun with her ageing, cruel, insecure Masha, covering her anxieties initially by attacking her sister’s self-esteem, but, coming to realise that she can only dress up as the “fairest of them all” for so long, she softens. It may not be very Chekhov, but Durang is a much warmer writer than his Russian hero.

Rebecca Lacey’s Sonia snips at Vanya with perfect comic timing and nails Maggie Smith at the fancy dress party, no doubt enjoying the impersonation as much as we do. She’s also very strong on conveying how life can simply slide past you when it’s too easy to stay in one’s comfort zone - though Durang is much kinder to her than Chekhov would be.

Michael Maloney is largely a silent observer as Vanya until his tour-de-force railing against the 21st century’s dismantling of the 20th century’s social networking (in favour of social media, natch). It’s an updating of Uncle Vanya’s celebrated tirade, fortunately without the gunfire that provoked the depressed Russian, and it’ll have fellow 58 year-olds in the audience cheering along - believe me!

With David Korins’ easy on the eye set and even a bit of George Harrison at his most mellow to send us out into the anxiety-laden hurly-burly of Covid London, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike provides an entertaining couple of hours, tickling the funny bone and sprucing up the intellect without ever becoming hard work. If it’s a little pleased with itself from time to time, if the absurdity is a little too keen to elbow out the poignancy, they are forgivable flaws in a comedy that reminds us that life is definitely not a rehearsal.   

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