Theatre review: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Another example of American and British tastes often differing, Christopher Durang's uneven comedy-drama Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike won a Best Play Tony in 2012, but didn't make it to the UK until this 2019 Theatre Royal Bath production, which was further delayed in transferring to London by... the usual*. As the title suggests, Durang throws together characters and situations from Chekhov in different configurations, with modern-day rural Pennsylvania standing in for turn-of-the-last-century remote Russia. Here three siblings in their fifties grew up, and two of them still live: Vanya (Michael Maloney) and his adopted sister Sonia (Rebecca Lacey) looked after their elderly parents, and following their deaths have stayed there, with no jobs and little to do with their time. They're supported by sister Masha (Janie Dee,) who sees herself as a classical actress but has made her fortune in a slasher movie franchise.

Masha makes an unexpected return, accompanied by the toyboy she's picked up after five failed marriages: Spike (Charlie Maher) is a wannabe actor who enjoys frequently making his clothes fall off, especially in front of the gay and not-quite-closeted Vanya.

On a dip in the nearby lake, Spike meets Nina (Lukwesa Mwamba,) the visiting niece of the neighbours, completing the Chekhovian types at the centre of the story, and sparking a huge fit of jealousy from the insecure Masha, whose casual cruelty to her siblings kicks up a notch as she tries to hold on to her narcissistic boyfriend. The story builds to a couple of events: The preparations for and aftermath of a fancy-dress party that Masha has been invited to, and everyone else is tagging along to; and a mirroring of the opening act of The Seagull, in which Nina performs an avant-garde play Vanya has written as a response to Konstantin's disastrous premiere in Chekhov's play.

This is a tricky show to get a grip on: David Korins' set and Emily Rebholz' costumes could definitely have come out of modern-dress Chekhov, but Walter Bobbie's production goes for a broadly sitcom style - which is what the publicity has also heavily suggested we're getting. And yes, Chekhov labelled many of his plays as comedies, but the ones Durang is referencing here have a much gentler sense of humour than Masha forcing everyone to dress up as dwarves to her Snow White, or Spike putting his clothes back on in a hyper-sexualised "reverse striptease" (obviously I'm not complaining; Maher is better-looking in the flesh than in the publicity photos, which makes up for the disappointment of Lewis Reeves not coming along with the production from Bath.)

But for all the trappings of raucous comedy I probably laughed less than I have at many an actual Chekhov play, and I was also sometimes irritated by Durang feeling the need to explain the references a lot of the time, with Vanya and Sonia reminding each other how their parents had consciously named them all after Chekhov characters, and Vanya breaking down how his play referred to The Seagull. One bit of commentary that probably did need to be there is why the final character comes out of the Oresteia: Despite Sara Powell's fun performance the fact that cleaning lady Cassandra's dialogue consists entirely of impenetrable prophecies of doom quickly gets old. Fortunately things improve in the second half as Cassandra's mystic side gets more proactive, and she starts stabbing a poppet to stop Masha from selling the house. Still, it's bizarre to have her there as such an overt reference to a completely different theatrical tradition than the rest of the play, and it feels a bit like Durang didn't have the courage of his convictions to either stick strictly to Chekhov, or create a play that threw together a wider field of classical references.

The second half is stronger in general and settles more into a straightforward Chekhov pastiche than the broad comedy of the first. The characters' concerns - particularly the fear of change and the future, and an updated look at Chekhov's proto-environmentalism - are very on-brand, and Vanya gets an (over-long) big speech bemoaning everything from the climate crisis to the more immediate fear of losing his home. Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike contains some interesting moments, but for me what was missing (apart from an alcoholic doctor, which definitely feels like an oversight,) was the big laughs the production's been sold on.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang is booking until the 8th of January at the Charing Cross Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

*the delay may be less than a decade but the many references to Spike trying to get cast in Entourage 2 demonstrate how quickly a topical gag can date.

Theatre review: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike