Ustinov Studio, Bath – until 6 July 2019
Beware the well garlanded American play that descends to our shores, is a well-trodden word of advice from any prospective theatre producer looking to bring an American hit over here. So many have crashed and burned that it mostly seems a fool’s errand. Fortunately, Jonathan Church has a showman’s eye for the popular and it’s a relief to report that Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike provides a strong start to another Bath summer season. If it’s 2013 Tony Award feels a bit overexposed in this tiny studio in Bath, it rattles along at a fair pace – supported by six terrific performances in Walter Bobbie’s production – as though a Neil Simon play has been transported to a Chekhovian milieu.
Mind you, Christopher Durang’s play gets off to a shaky start. As gay bachelor Vanya and adoptive, depressed sister Sonia sit making breakfast time conversation, we get the worst kind of exposition as siblings who have lived together all their lives layout in blunt form how their professor parents named the three of them after Chekhov characters, how their sister Masha decamped to Hollywood and how they feel being left behind. No sense of drip feeding here, just a full-on exposition dump, the kind that would make the late great Stephen Jeffreys shake his heads in exasperation.
Yet maybe Durang realised he had to get that information out so the fun could start. The moment that Janie Dee as movie star Masha hits the stage, the momentum starts rolling and never really lets up. Along with her toyboy lover Spike, all floppy haired boyish gawkishness in Lewis Reeve’s charming performance, Masha has come home, both to attend a fancy-dress party and to inform her siblings, that the house, replete with its cherry orchard (well at least the ten odd trees they have in their garden) will be sold.
For those keeping up with these Chekhovian allusions, it probably won’t come as a huge surprise that an aspiring actress called Nina also enters the scene (doe-eyed and uncynical Aysha Kala) and eventually reads ‘Uncle Vanya’s’ experimental play to the bored, slightly perturbed extended family. For those that know their Fedotik’s from their Yepikhodov’s, it’s an array of theatrical in-jokes though the strength of the play is that it works just as well on its own merits.
Ultimately, it’s a play about family and how your roots will always act as a form of a homing pigeon. Each of the three siblings looks back in regret, Vanya of a lifetime of not chasing what he wants, Sonia of being perpetually ignored and Masha afraid of growing older and never having the chance to prove her mettle as an actress. Yet over the course of 24 hours each of them discovers a new, potentially positive direction. Because Durang, unlike Chekhov, doesn’t leave them facing the abyss but instead tackling the world through a different prism. So whether its Vanya finding a voice away from his general passivity, Sonia finding confidence as she channels her inner Maggie Smith in a glittering green ball dress, or Masha accepting a film role as a Grandmother, each of them look out on a more positive tomorrow as the Beatle’s Here Comes The Sun plays out at its climax.
Dee is the star of the show, bringing the self-absorbed actress to glittering life. Looking every inch, the movie star in her hemmed jumpsuit and killer heels, her voice husky and full of grit, she manages to make us care even when she is at her most frustratingly blinkered. I’m not sure there’s ever been a bad Dee performance but this one is pitched at her glittering, charismatic best. Mark Hadfield as Vanya makes schlubby passivity endearing rather than frustrating and, as Sonia, Rebecca Lacey’s Maggie Smith impression is worth the price of admission on its own, long before she both breaks hearts and makes one punch the air in one phone conversation. Reeves and Kala both bring youthful charm and pretty looks as the youngsters dragged into the chasm of middle-aged ennui while Michelle Asante does what she can with the overtly kooky maid.
All-in-all it’s a fun night at the theatre, a throwback to when commercial plays dominated the Great White Way. Perhaps it’s all a little saccharine for my taste but I predict a hit.
Vanya and Sonia and Spike and Masha plays at the Ustinov until the 6 July.