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Vassa: Almeida Theatre.

November 27, 2019

(seen at the afternoon performance on 2nd November 2019)

There’s a reason Russian classic writers like Gorky are not known for comedy – it’s because he didn’t write any – to the monkey’s knowledge. Why Mike Bartlett thought he could adapt one as a farce and Tinuke Craig direct it as one in thus inexplicable.

Either way, it’s one of the least funny two hours the monkey has ever had to sit through.

The utterly unhilarious idea of a domineering “Ab Fab” matriarch, Vassa (Siobhan Redmond) ruling her roost of children, in-laws and maids may have comic potential if they are given an amusing situation to work with and the leading character isn’t an unrelenting bully sucking any fun out of proceedings.

There’s also absolutely no excuse for the violence – particularly towards maid Lipa (Alexandra Dowling, doing a very fine job under extremely trying circumstances) – and even if there were it lacks credibility particularly in the final scene.

There’s no real sense of period from the set and costumes as the former suggests turn-of-the-century, the latter more modern, and the second half flora just seems an indulgence. Still, the ceiling design is exceptionally beautiful, so not all bad from reliable Fly Davis.

The rest of the actors do what they can. Amber James gives easily the best performance as Anna, returning daughter who will one day be more than a match for her mother. As the best-written character, it’s noticeable how the pace flags when she is off stage. There’s good work too from Sophi Wu as Lyudmila and Arthur Hughes as Pavel her unlucky spouse, with Kayla Meikle as another unfortunate family victim, sorry, in-law also worthy of mention.

Two hours creep by as Vassa schemes, bullies and makes far more of the slim plot about a dying husband and perhaps poisoning others in her way than the concept requires. Playing at comic speed at least means we don’t have to wait longer to leave, but the sudden braking in pace almost causes mental whiplash and a glance at the watch to count the time down.

Quite what the reasoning behind this production was will probably forever remain a mystery. A troupe of good actors are at least employed, as are all those working on it, but honestly there didn’t seem to be any particular logic to its existence beyond maybe allowing the Almeida to tick Gorky off its Russian plays staged quota from the Arts Council.

1 star.

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