Christopher Durang’s play, presented by Headgate Theatre Productions and 3wishes, spoofs on the work of Chekov and centres on two single, middle-aged siblings, Vanya and Sonia, who remain in a static void of permanent despair in a house paid for by their successful sister, Masha, a Hollywood actress.
When she arrives with her latest, much younger, paramour, Spike, tensions and jealousy come out into the open, aided by the arrival of luminous, aspiring actress Nina and swirling around the prophecies of cleaning woman Cassandra.
It’s an odd play. A working knowledge of Chekov is essential (although many of the jokes are a tad obvious), as is awareness of Greek myth. The play is so fond of its own cleverness that it restricts the characters a lot, all of them just mouthpieces for Durang’s point of view.
Director Wendy Smith relishes a challenge and clearly has a great love for the play. With a cast minted in experience, this is not a flop show; the actors rise above the constraints of the script.
Sallie Mills is funny and affecting as Sonia. There’s a wonderful sequence in Act Two when she gets a call from a potential suitor after decades of loneliness that really showcases her vulnerability, and you feel some empathy for her.
Anthony Roberts captures Vanya’s gruffness and closeted homosexuality well, although his tirade against modern life is overwritten by Durang and goes on for far too long!
Elly Kent could have brought out the diva even more as Masha, and Chris Smith is effective eye candy as dim, athletic, aspiring actor Spike. There is no character development for him to get into, though; Spike begins and ends the play the same.
Abi Cunliffe has effective moments as the prophet Cassandra, but the speech patterns and sassiness indicate that this part was originally performed by an African-American woman. Best of all is an excellent performance by Ella Blaxill as rising starlet Nina, an alluring performance with a good mixture of innocence.
Where the comedy should have produced guffaws, there were polite titters, and first-night nerves may have played their part here, and that will settle in as the run progresses. The play is effectively staged, and the pace is excellent. Although the climate change message at the end, beautifully realised by lighting, feels tagged on, there isn’t enough in the script for it to feel that it arises naturally.
I suspect this will be a divisive piece; what I find pretentious, others will find clever, but it has been brought to the stage with love and skill.
Vanya and Sonia and Marsha and Spike takes place at The Headgate Theatre until Saturday 18th November.