BWW Review: VASSA, Almeida Theatre
The last time Gorky's play had a version of it on was in a lukewarm production at the Southwark Playhouse in 2016, where the production was thrown into the contemporary without much substance to back it up. Bartlett keeps it traditional, putting questions of capitalist corruption at the forefront of the narrative. His version is a black comedy, a jovial piece filled with many zingy one-liners and exciting punchiness.
Vassa sits at the head of a family that's breaking down around her. Her husband is on his deathbed, her brother-in-law is planning to take all the company's money, the children are all plotting against one another, and the maids hate their lives at the house.
Safe to say, things aren't going well, yet Vassa - played audaciously by Siobhán Redmond (stepping in for an injured Samantha Bond) - is determined to keep things together. Resorting to bullying tactics, instead of causing synchronicity she ends up pushing most away, falling prey to her own terrible game. Appearing initially cheeky and loose-lipped, Redmond's jokes cut deeper than that of harmless patter - there is venom behind each word.
Chaos ensues and Bartlett's farce - directed with playfulness by Tinuke Craig - has the audience laughing at several points throughout. It's fearless for the most part, but there are some moments when there's a little too much madness happening on stage. The characters talk over one another, resulting in lines being lost. It's in the big ensemble parts where the play struggles, as the space doesn't feel balanced. There's a lot that's been crammed into the two hours, so you need to pay attention to every tiny detail. However, Craig's blocking is at times clunky and doesn't guide the audience's point of view.
The cast are all capable actors who deliver the dialogue with ease. Their chemistry helps the play get through its scrappy bits and Craig brings out the best of them. Danny Kirrane is hilarious as the over-the-top caricature Semyon. The repeating of the phrase "joo" is funnier than it should be. He is well balanced by the superb and serious Arthur Hughes - as brothers, they couldn't be more different. Michael Gould's uncle is a sleazy reminder of the ugly patriarchy and Amber James's Anna is incredibly headstrong, caring, and the most like her mother.
Unfortunately, what lets this production down is its lack of clarity in its intention. The 2016 production at Southwark Playhouse flipped it to modern day without a backing for why, whereas this adaptation doesn't seem to know where it is. It's classical for sure, but when exactly is a bit of a mystery. The lack of grounding is to its detriment, and because of this, every stage movement and spoken word falls a little short.
Photo: Marc Brenner