In rural Pennsylvania, Vanya and his adopted sister Sonia live a quiet life of Chekhovian ennui and bitterness, after having cared for their parents in the family home. Their bickering is interspersed with hankering after a better, more fulfilled life and thoughts of what might have been. Into this pit of despair and coffee comes their hand-grenade of a sister, Masha, an escapee from the countryside who fled to the bright lights of Hollywood, achieving a degree of fame and fortune, and revelling in her perceived superiority. The three siblings seem destined to live out the lives of their namesakes, throwing in references to The Cherry Orchard (not really an orchard) and The Seagull (here a wild turkey), with misery and calamity foretold by Cassandra, their psychic and Voodoo-loving cleaner.
Christopher Durang’s Tony-award winning play has a feather-weight plot. Directed by Walter Bobbie, this is a rollicking comedy with laugh-out-loud moments and underlying social commentary, which depends entirely on the strength of the performers to carry it. Fortunately, this production has exactly the actors who can make this scenario work. Janie Dee totally embodies Masha’s self-absorption and desperate vulnerability after five failed marriages and now her current hook-up with shallow toy boy and wannabee actor, Spike, looking rocky. Her feigned lack of self-awareness is never more evident than when she recounts how partygoers thought her costume was Norma Desmond rather than Snow White, her fading movie star persona evident to all. Rebecca Lacey is a glorious Sonia, the dowdy provincial duckling who turns into a glamorous swan when given the chance. Lacey’s impersonation of Maggie Smith in California Suite is perfect in its imperfection, a highlight of the show. As is the scene where Sonia is asked out by a man she met at the costume party in a truly touching moment for a woman who has never known true love and always felt side-lined as the adopted child.
Vanya, initially the most reticent of the characters, is played with understated calm by Michael Maloney, until pushed into an epic rant of nostalgia and concerns for the future. Many of the references to 1950s American TV shows and culture are lost on a British audience (although I Love Lucy has international recognition) and the rant goes on just that bit too long, losing some of its power as a result. But it remains the turning point of the play and for the characters proves a moment of personal growth and self-awareness.
The cleaner, Cassandra, embodies her Greek tragedy namesake, revelling in the accuracy of her doom-laden predictions, then making lunch. It’s a tour-de-force comedy performance from Sara Powell.
There’s excellent support from Charlie Maher as Masha’s boyfriend, Spike, suitably charmless and vain, and from Lukwesa Mwamba as the young hopeful, Nina, who aspires to be a mini-Masha in her adoration of the older woman.
It’s all totally over-the-top bordering on farce, with gentle mocking of Chekovian themes, but the observations about fame, family, celebrity and nostalgia are spot-on.
Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike runs at the Charing Cross Theatre until 8th January 2022. Tickets are available from: https://charingcrosstheatre.co.uk/theatre/vanya-and-sonia
Reviewer: Carole Gordon
Reviewed: 15th November 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★