Category Archives: Posts

VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

★★★

Charing Cross Theatre

VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Charing Cross Theatre

Reviewed – 15th November 2021

★★★

 

“Durang’s gift for witty one liners is alive and well in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, but this particular comedy has a fin de siécle feel about it”

 

Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is aging poorly—rather like its main characters. This nod-to-Chekhov mash up of (mostly) The Seagull and Uncle Vanya does provide moments for the actors, especially in the second half. Audiences who go expecting vintage Durang at this latest revival at the Charing Cross Theatre in London, however, may be disappointed. And in truth, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is the sort of show that plays better in New York, where it won a Tony Award in 2013.

In Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, drama comes to Bucks County, Pennsylvania—and sadness, punctuated by moments of hilarity, ensue. Durang has freely adapted Chekhov’s characters—Vanya is gay; Sonia is his adopted sister, and Masha is their successful, but aging, movie star sister. After spending years nursing their elderly parents, Vanya and Sonia are finally free of their responsibilities—but that simply reminds them that their lives are now pointless. Into this existential void comes Masha, accompanied by her much younger lover Spike. Adding more drama and intrigue, are Cassandra, a prophecy ranting cleaner, and Nina, a starstruck young neighbour. The plot is slight—revolving around Masha’s threats to sell the house, Nina’s desire to be an actress (much like the character she is named for in The Seagull) and Vanya and Sonia’s attempts to make their lives more interesting. For Sonia, this is an opportunity to channel Maggie Smith in California Suite at a costume party. For Vanya, it is a reading of the play he has written in imitation of Konstantin’s in The Seagull. Spike is there to strip off his clothes at every opportunity, (he is also a wannabe actor) and be the exhibitionist cat among the pigeons.

Durang’s characters, like Chekhov’s, struggle with living trivial lives. They are bitter, and/or bewildered, having realized that while they were simply existing, life (and love) has passed them by. This is true even for Masha who once dreamed of acting in Chekhov’s Three Sisters. (She’s a veteran of five failed marriages, and countless franchise horror films.) In the first half of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike this means coffee cups of frustration hurled at the walls. The second half does live more satisfyingly—Vanya has a wonderful monologue in which he celebrates a now vanished America of the fifties. The plot still follows a depressing trajectory, however. Masha loses Spike to her (younger) personal assistant; Sonia has to make the emotionally loaded choice to continue channeling Maggie Smith if she wants to date a gentleman caller she met at the costume party, and Vanya contemplates getting a job at the local pharmacy. The play as a whole is not kind to its characters.

In the Charing Cross Theatre’s production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, the actors make the best of this material. Rebecca Lacey is particularly enjoyable as Sonia. She steals the scenes wherever she can, whether it is as downtrodden Sonia, or scorching Maggie Smith on her way to an awards ceremony. It’s a tough act to follow, but Michael Maloney as Vanya and Janie Dee as Masha provide solid comic support as her siblings. Each has a breakout moment when we get to see their fears of a meaningless future stretching out before them. “I’m worried about the future, and I miss the past,” says Vanya, and oddly enough, this is more true in 2021, than in 2013. Sara Powell has her share of scene stealing moments as the doomsayer Cassandra. She also has wonderful comic timing. Lukwesa Mwamba (Nina) and Charlie Maher (Spike) manage to be likeable and sympathetic despite the shortcomings of their roles. Add to the performances a finely observed set design by David Korins, stylish costumes by Emily Rebholz, and solid dialect coaching by Salvatore Sorce, and you could easily imagine yourself to be sitting in a Broadway theatre.

Durang’s gift for witty one liners is alive and well in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, but this particular comedy has a fin de siécle feel about it. Go for the laughs, but try to avoid feelings of existential dread on the way home.

 

Reviewed by Dominica Plummer

Photography by Marc Brenner

 


Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Charing Cross Theatre until 8th January

 

Also reviewed at this venue this year:
Pippin | ★★★★ | July 2021

 

Click here to see our most recent reviews

 

The Trilobite

The Trilobite

★★★★

Online

The Trilobite

The Trilobite

The Cockpit Theatre

Reviewed – 23 September 2020

★★★★

 

“a fascinating experiment in the creation of new operas”

 

The Trilobite is part of a socially distanced live performance series at the Cockpit Theatre brought together by the Tête á Tête Opera Festival. But if you missed the September 17th performance in house, or the September 19th interactive broadcast online, don’t worry. A recording of the interactive broadcast is available, also online, for 28 days.

The Trilobite, or The Fall of Mr. Williams, is the creation of opera maker Elfyn Jones. It is the final piece in a triptych (as Jones likes to refer to his trilogy) of operas that are linked not so much by theme, as by modes of production. While working on his PhD thesis at Goldsmiths College, Jones began experimenting with various ways of integrating sound into opera. The Trilobite has a number of innovative examples of his experiments in sound design. These, married to a complex and interesting plot, and coupled to some richly ironic singing, make for a compelling experience.

So what do ambitious geography teachers, trilobites, a love triangle, angels, and a fall from England’s highest cliff all have to do with each other? It is remarkable how Elfyn Jones manages to bring together these disparate elements in only thirty minutes of performance time. A passion for trilobites, together with ambitions of giving a lecture at a prestigious Geography Institute, lead Mr. Williams up the slippery slope of the Great Hangman cliff on Exmoor. There, attempting to protect his students from falling, he himself topples over the edge. As he falls, we find out that he has lost the love of his life to the gym teacher. More importantly, perhaps, we learn that the discovery of a new type of trilobite was made, not by him, but by a sixth form student of his. In the last ten seconds of the hapless Mr. Williams’ life, a couple of judgmental angels comment ironically on these events.

It’s a pretty extraordinary idea to use the last ten seconds of a man’s life as the basis for a plot. But what makes this piece equally arresting, are the sounds, in all their manifestations. Not just the singing, which are skillful performances by baritone Peter Edge, tenor Lars Fischer (Mr. Williams), and mezzo-soprano Anna Prowse. It’s also the way in which Jones puts all these elements together. For the performance at the Cockpit Theatre during the 2020 pandemic, Fischer was, in fact, the only performer who appeared on stage. Edge and Prowse had to perform in more challenging circumstances, as their parts (and they each played several) were recorded separately during lockdown, with only a green screen for company. Not that Fischer’s performing platform was easy, by any means. It must be quite a feat to sing while imagining yourself falling through space.

The magic in The Trilobite emerges in the mixing of the musicians, the singers and the sound effects. Using sound processing software for this opera, Jones creates, for example, the rush of air as Mr. Williams falls through space; water running through sand; a journey in a car through the pouring rain, and voices of complaining sixth formers. This is music of a different kind —a rich subtext to the dramatic events taking place. And through the wizardry of more processing software, Jones was able to combine all the elements—sound effects and music—to create this piece. It’s an intriguing execution of an exciting concept. If there is one criticism to be made, it is that sometimes there is so much going on in Jones’ opera, that it’s hard to take it all in. But as the composer suggests in the discussion that follows the performance online, live performances on stage by both singers and musicians in future post-pandemic productions, should be easier on everyone.

So catch The Trilobite, or The Fall of Mr. Williams, in its current manifestation, while you can. It’s a fascinating experiment in the creation of new operas. And the subject matter notwithstanding, it’s also a lot of fun.

 

 

Reviewed by Dominica Plummer

Photography by Claire Shovelton

 

Tete a Tete


The Trilobite

The Cockpit Theatre as part of Tête à Tête Opera Festival 2020 also available online

Previously reviewed by Dominica:
Jason Kravits – Off The Top | ★★★★★ | Live At Zédel | January 2020
Us Two | ★★★ | The Space | January 2020
Crybabies: Danger Brigade | ★★★ | The Vaults | March 2020
Fireworks | ★★★ | The Vaults | March 2020
Luna | ★★ | The Vaults | March 2020
Our Man In Havana | ★★★★ | The Vaults | March 2020
Revisor | ★★★★★ | Sadler’s Wells Theatre | March 2020
Sky In The Pie | ★★★ | The Vaults | March 2020
The Revenger’s Tragedy (La Tragedia Del Vendicatore) | ★★★★★ | Barbican | March 2020
The Tempest | ★★★★ | Jermyn Street Theatre | March 2020

 

Click here to see our most recent reviews