Pitched somewhere between Kafka-esque grimness and an anthology of whimsical but potty-mouthed folk fables, Roxy Cook’s strange but endearing play, with its recent-past Moscow setting, gallery of eccentrics (human and feline) and air of sinister surrealism, feels like a translation of something that probably played better in its original language. In fact though, it isn’t: winner of Theatre503’s International Playwriting Award for 2023, it’s a rambling, intermittently delightful slice of modern Russian life, where characters regularly proclaim the glory of their home country despite the fact that everything seems to be falling apart.
Cook is a talented, evocative writer, conjuring up vivid snapshots of urban settings and fractured, discontented lives in a couple of well-turned sentences, with a refreshingly unfettered imagination and a terrific sideline in jet-black humour. The text eschews linear storytelling for a series of interconnected plot strands told in a mixture of repetitious direct address with an almost childlike simplicity, and bizarre but captivating detail. For example, an old woman takes out an unfeasibly high-interest loan and is pursued by a debt collector, meanwhile, her ancient cat goes AWOL and the bank worker who sold the loan goes on a bender. Although reminiscent of other writers and genres, the overall effect of A Woman Walks Into a Bank is of a highly original mind at work, but not fully in control of a scattershot narrative.
Unfortunately, in its present form, the play feels in serious need of an editor. Cook stages her own work and invests it with a zesty, flamboyant physical theatre style that recalls Complicité at their most joyfully off-the-wall, but one can’t help but wonder if a separate director might have realised that, despite the charisma of the three actors, these characters and anecdotes sometimes tend to meander on longer than is interesting or bearable. Also, tonally it feels in need of clarification: it’s too fanciful to fully convey the privations and difficulties of living within a breaking down societal system, yet too brutal to really take flight. It’s an interesting tension but it doesn’t quite gel yet.
The cast is really wonderful though: a trio of tragic clowns whose observations and characterisations are rooted in reality but with a free-floating mischievousness that genuinely entrances. Giulia Innocenti, by widening her eyes, altering her stance and subtly adopting a slight twitch, transforms into the titular old woman with heartbreaking accuracy, and Sam Newton invests the self-aggrandising bank worker with just the right combination of gauche and bumptiousness. Keith Dunphy superbly, unsettlingly captures both the aggression and the sentimental softness of the debt collector. All three performers variously portray Sally the missing cat in one of several enjoyable, utterly bonkers conceits.
David Allen’s aggressively upholstered set is so ugly it’s almost beautiful, and the whole production has an energy that almost succeeds in diverting attention from the problem that the play is overlong, and not entirely clear on what we should be taking away from it. Emotional connection isn’t always possible when the structure and presentation are so cartoonish but still, this is an atmospheric, unusual evening, enriched by tremendous performances.