Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike review – Chekhovian comic curio

Ustinov, Bath
Strong performances buoy up a lightweight story about characters fated to fulfil the destinies of their fictional namesakes

I find it mildly astonishing that this piece won the 2013 Tony award for best play. For much of its duration, Christopher Durang’s drama seems a campy comedy depending on Chekhovian tropes and showbiz allusions. But suddenly, in the second half, Durang delivers two extended monologues that demonstrate his skill as a writer and lift the piece to another plane.

The 57-year-old Vanya and his adopted sister, Sonia, appear fated to fulfil the destinies of the Chekhov characters after whom they are named. Their listless life in the family home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, is briefly illumined by the arrival of another sibling, Masha – a fading star of stage and screen who not only has a young lover, Spike, in tow but also invites them all to a costume party.

Lewis Reeves, Rebecca Lacey and Aysha Kala in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.
Lewis Reeves, Rebecca Lacey and Aysha Kala in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Photograph: Nobby Clark

The skimpy plot is stuffed with Chekhov references as Sonia announces, “I am a wild turkey,” as opposed to a seagull, and hymns an imagined cherry orchard. Having tried one’s patience, Durang then rewards it by invoking a genuine Chekhovian theme: the dramatic effect of a visitor upon the visited.

The play depends heavily on the performers and, happily, Walter Bobbie’s production boasts some fine actors. Janie Dee beautifully captures Masha’s preening self-regard and desperate desire to defy the years; having dressed as Snow White for the party, she finds herself mistaken for Norma Desmond. Rebecca Lacey shows the self-pitying Sonia’s transformation by adopting, for the party, the voice and manner of Maggie Smith in California Suite; Lacey makes something genuinely touching of the second-act scene in which she takes a phone call from an unexpected admirer.

Having little to do initially, Mark Hadfield savours Vanya’s sustained paean to the 1950s. Sentimental nostalgia is avoided with the sharp reminder that it was also a decade in which to be gay was to be stigmatised. Michelle Asante as a psychic cleaner and Lewis Reeves as a young buck provide good support and, even though it is a lightweight play, it finally shows that Durang gets Chekhov’s point: drama is about the growth from ignorance to knowledge.

• At the Ustinov, Bath, until 6 July.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Uncle Vanya review – Rupert Everett is flamboyant in Hare's comic Chekhov
A dark, growly Everett pushes the humour in David Hare’s absurdist adaptation of the classic drama of mid-life malaise

Arifa Akbar

31, Jul, 2019 @12:21 PM

Article image
Rupert Everett: 'I'd have done anything to be a Hollywood star'
He lit up the screen in the 80s – but things did not go as planned. As he takes on Chekhov, Everett speaks about stardom, midlife crises and penis padding

Arifa Akbar

30, Jul, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
Uncle Vanya review – Terry Johnson brings brutality to Chekhov country
There are vibrant performances in this new version of the Russian masterpiece, directed and written by Johnson

Michael Billington

07, Dec, 2018 @10:35 AM

Article image
The week in theatre: A Midsummer Night’s Dream; While the Sun Shines; Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike – review
Nicholas Hytner pulls off a dazzling circus trick with Puck and co

Kate Kellaway

16, Jun, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
Monogamy review – celebrity chef cooks up an apocalyptic stew
Torben Betts’s social satire about a beleaguered kitchen goddess builds to a bewildering climax full of panic and violence

Michael Billington

11, Jun, 2018 @10:00 PM

Article image
From Hamlet to Hullabaloo: what to see as theatres and comedy clubs reopen
As stage shows return, we pick the best post-lockdown offerings – featuring Egyptian gods, rebelling vicars, dancing youths ... and Ian McKellen playing the Dane at 82

Arifa Akbar (theatre), Brian Logan (comedy), Lyndsey Winship (dance)

16, May, 2021 @2:00 PM

Article image
Chekhov's Uncle Vanya: from Russia with grunge

What's the right way to do Chekhov? With lace tablecloths and endless cups of tea – or a blast of Nirvana? Stars from three new productions, including Anna Friel and Ken Stott, talk to Stephen Moss

Stephen Moss

31, Oct, 2012 @6:03 PM

Article image
The Nightingales review – Ruth Jones on song in catty choir drama
A village choir’s harmony is upset by a sly newcomer in William Gaminara’s satire of snobbery, secrets and singing contests

Arifa Akbar

09, Nov, 2018 @8:00 AM

Article image
The Dark review – dangerous escape from Idi Amin's Uganda
Nick Makoha’s fragmented and vertiginous account of his treacherous journey to Britain is a story of our times

Arifa Akbar

21, Jan, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
Three Sisters review – RashDash's gloriously playful take on Chekhov
This brilliantly witty show asks who the classics are for – and what Chekhov’s play means for young women today

Lyn Gardner

11, May, 2018 @9:34 AM