Charing Cross Theatre, London – until 8 January 2022
Vanya and Sonia are siblings – though she is adopted – and have led dull dutiful lives in a remote country house surrounded by cherry trees and an orchard, funded by a more successful city sibling, Masha, who is now coming to disrupt their weekend and tell them she plans to sell the house.
Vanya meanwhile is writing an experimental play that will get nowhere. Sonia reckons they have never really lived. If you think you recognise a Chekhov set-up, you’re right and it’s deliberate: stiflingly so. Openly, too, as the rural pair reminisce about their parents’ community-theatre obsession with the Russian playwright.
It all feels very upmarket-sitcom, very laboured, though brightens up a bit with the arrival of Masha, who is the peerless Janie Dee at her most comically assured as a fearful and tactless diva five marriages down (“I”m beautiful, talented, charming, successful, why do they leave me?”). She is trailing a dumb boyfriend Spike (Charlie Maher) parodying every preening pop hunk ever, keen to get his shirt off and run round the auditorium in his pants to a supposed pond. Masha is off to a costume party, where she will be Disney’s Snow White and the others are cast as the seven dwarfs in unbecoming costumes provided by her.
Only Sonia decides to be the Wicked Queen (‘as played by Maggie Smith”, instead) scrubs up, and opts to spend the party (which occurs in the interval) talking in a nasally drawling Maggie Smith voice. So far, so sitcom.Though Rebecca Lacey is very good in both the Maggie imitation and – as the play finally develops – in expressing the real pain of a sense of empty forgotten life.
Sometimes you go to a play which won an award, in this case a Tony, spend the first hour mystified by how this could have happened, and find the puzzle at last almost solved by a barnstorming second half. Here, in particular, by a culminating rant delivered con amore and tempestuoso by Michael Maloney as Vanya. Note to playwrights: leave us with a good memory and we forgive a dreary start.
Maloney, who had hitherto spent far too much of the play sitting on a wicker chair, often dressed as dwarf Grumpy, is provoked into a magnificent tirade against the callow dimbo Spike, who is texting rather than listening to his play. “I worry about the future and I miss the past” he cries, yearning for the dutiful worthy dullness of a smalltown 1950s Main-Street-America when people licked stamps and posted letters, and all wept together when Old Yeller the dog was shot. He sets it against today’s vapid online frenzy, gnatlike attention span and toddler-accessible porn . It is rather magnificent. It speaks for a generation, even if they suspect (what with the racism and limitations of 1955) that it’s nonsense.
If Christopher Durang can write like this – and brilliantly conjure up the preceding emotional scene between two women, and the awful comedy of Vanya’s play voiced by a molecule in space – If he can do all this, why waste so very much of our time in the first half, strafing us with winkingly knowing Chekhov and Greek tragedy references and random theatrebuff insiderism? When a character mentions Pirandello some of us reach for an angry biro. And why, on top of that – introduce a semi-comic cleaning lady called Cassandra who – though doughtily played by Sara Powell – repeatedly delivers pointless and pretentious prophecies of doom just to justify her name? In the second half this maid proves to have supernatural powers for a few minutes, and so wearied by theatrical-literary references was I that I immediately thought “ah, Blithe Spirit”. That’s how damaged you can be by extreme self-referentialism in theatre.
But I wasn’t sorry I went, and this theatre is often the best value in the West End (alongside the dear Jermyn), and it’s never a waste of time watching Dee, Maloney, and Lacey.
Box office. Charingcrosstheatre.co.uk. To 8 Jan
‘The peerless @DeeJanie is at her most comically assured’: @lib_thinks isn’t sure about Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike’s upmarket-sitcom Chekhov but loves its leading lady at @CharingCrossThr. #VASMAS #theatrereviews