Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike review - a Chekhov-inspired, American sitcom-esque delight
The show runs at the Charing Cross Theatre
Two middle aged women, one garishly attired as Disney's Snow White, screeching that her life is over, and the other channeling a version of Maggie Smith in ball gown and tiara, lamenting that her life never really began, both volubly bawling their eyes out, while in the background a man dressed as one of the Seven Dwarves meekly sips tea. Seldom has the close connection between comical and tragic been so convincingly epitomised as by this moment from Christopher Durang's bittersweet (but mostly sweet) Tony award winner, which belatedly arrives in London via Bath after being postponed by the pandemic. Meet the titular Masha, Sonia and Vanya, all named after Chekhov characters (their parents were leading lights of the local community theatre scene), the centre of this strange but delightful Broadway comedy, a riff on the work of Russia's foremost dramatist but with strong overtones of the finer American sitcoms.
As played by, respectively, Janie Dee, Rebecca Lacey and Michael Maloney, this tragicomic trio is a riot of dysfunctional fun rooted in a desperately sad reality that feels true to the play's Chekhovian inspiration. They are siblings, but Masha is a glamorous, feted Hollywood actress while the other two have stayed in the Bucks County country house where they grew up, growing more and more disenchanted with their humdrum existences, yet bankrolled by their wealthy sister.
The Spike of the play's title is the preposterously sexy but unscrupulous young actor Masha brings with her when she comes home to inform her brother and sister that she's selling up the house (lovely set design by Broadway's David Korins). The modern day parallels to The Cherry Orchard, The Seagull (there's even a character named Nina!) and Uncle Vanya come thick and fast but the beauty of Durang's bonkers but entertaining script is that you don't need to be a Chekhov aficionado to have a good time, so vivid are the characters and so universal are the relationships.
It helps that Walter Bobbie's savagely funny but essentially warm-hearted production is so well acted. Janie Dee does hauteur meets slightly unhinged better than almost anybody and her Masha - imperious, hilarious, and desperately insecure - is a terrific performance even by her award-winning standards. Michael Maloney's sensitive Vanya has a quiet magnetism that explodes in an extraordinary speech, magnificently rendered, about the social media-induced disassociation of modern life, that induces vociferous applause. Rebecca Lacey is heartbreakingly good as adopted sis Sonia, a pent-up bundle of passive aggression with unmistakable undercurrents of effervescence, doggedly coping with her life of disappointment while occasionally having moments of glorious abandon. Her lumbering gait and bark-like vocal timbre suggests a lifetime of being the eternal also-ran and one of the great joys of the evening is watching her blossom at the receiving end of some positive attention and realising that she has bested Masha for once.
Charlie Maher invests the ripped, self-absorbed Spike with enough quirky strangeness and wired energy to make him rather more interesting than just another vacuous hunk, and Lukwesa Mwamba is a satisfying combination of enthusiasm and steel as a star-struck local girl who can scarcely believe Hollywood has come to her neighbourhood. Sara Powell is gloriously fierce and funny as the deeply eccentric domestic cleaner (a sort of American great niece to Blithe Spirit's Madame Arcati), grudgingly roped into performing other household duties, including appearing in Vanya's weird play, when not sternly forecasting disaster for the family as a whole (her name, perhaps not unexpectedly, is Cassandra) or surprising herself with her somewhat bizarre powers.
The knowing theatricality on display here may not be to everybody's taste, and Durang lets his characters off the hook pretty lightly in comparison to his inspiration. It's a rollicking good time though, and a splendid, witty addition to the capital's autumn theatrical offerings.