The Tony Awards for comedy must have had a lean year in 2013 when Christopher Durang won Best Play for Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Or is it that the comedic gulf between America and Britain allows for success in one country and a mixed reception in the other?
Insufficient to carry it off as an outstanding comedy
Vanya (Michael Maloney) and Sonia (Rebecca Lacey) have enjoyed a simple and uninterrupted life in the family home for over fifty years. David Korins has created a delightfully warm, inviting and cosy set for this location. She was adopted by Vanya’s parents, now deceased, and they live as brother and sister. This is all a world away from the celebrity lifestyle of Vanya’s real sister, Masha (Janie Dee) who fled the nest and became a film star, though her fame is now in serious decline. Her money pays the mortgage (why do they still have one?) and all the household bills, leaving them somewhat beholden to her. She turns up on a rare and unannounced visit with her latest toy-boy Spike (Charlie Maher) in tow. Ostensibly she’s here to attend a posh costume party in a neighbouring house but she also intends to break the news that the house will be going up for sale.
If the names alone are not enough to give the game away, the action is an overt usurpation of various themes and circumstances from the collected works of Chekhov, complete with cherry trees that may or may not constitute an orchard. Those familiar with his works will see the resemblances, but such knowledge is not a prerequisite for understanding the play; it’s hardly profound.
Maloney captures the frustration and boredom of a plain woman who has never found a man to be her partner. The surprise up her sleeve comes when she turns on her Maggie Smith voice, reminiscing about the party, and delivers some grittily intoned lines. Lacey’s delivery and timing embrace the script and he has an exhausting act two monologue that is somewhat repetitious and seems to go on for ever, but for which he must be admired. Dee lifts the level with her extrovert takeover of the house, looking every bit the star in manner and attitude, while Maher boldly flaunts his impressive physique because that’s about all Spike can do.
Supplying an element of Greek tragic form Sara Powell has numerous spectauclar and impressive outbursts delivering dire warnings and impending doom from the messages in her head. In a sort of voodoo shamanistic style she seems possessed for a while before returning to her normal self as the housekeeper. Unsurprisingly her name is Cassandra. In stark contrast, Lukwesa Mwamba, in a delightful West End stage debut, plays Nina, the young neighbour, aspiring to be an actress, overwhelmed at meeting Masha and impressed by Spike.
There’s a flow of humour and even some good laughs in this play, but much of it is no more than amusing and insufficient to carry it off as an outstanding comedy.