The week in theatre: [Blank]; Lungs; Vassa – review

Donmar Warehouse; Old Vic; Almeida, London
Alice Birch searches for hope in the criminal justice system, Claire Foy and Matt Smith bring wit to eco angst, and Siobhan Redmond makes a fine Gorky antiheroine

One scene in Alice Birch’s new play would alone make the journey to the Donmar worthwhile. It is a feast scene – and an all-women scene – and in its apparently leisurely way it’s as provoking and unexpected as the celebrated banquet in Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls.

A lawyer is bringing her new girlfriend to meet old friends. These include a headteacher, a therapist and a documentary film-maker. One of them owns a flat in Berlin. One of them gets her dealer to bring round some coke. They talk about labneh and yoga and doing good in Bolivia. There are early ripples of satire, cleverly muted but cleverly rippling. There is at the centre a galvanising, totally surprising, not-to-be disclosed incident: it involves wee, and not in a good way. Crucially, though, the scene, taking on a woman excited by the idea of hashtagging along to #MeToo, delivers a dexterously argued attack not only on liberal smugness – you might have seen that coming – but on the evacuation of hard political content, of talk about systems as well as individuals, from so-called political discussion. You don’t often hear this. You might say Birch works a minor revolution, were it not that the term “revolution” is here so ably inspected, dissected – and judged mostly to be misused.

[Blank] marks the 40th anniversary of Clean Break, the theatre company that works with women affected by the criminal justice system. Other scenes are jagged shards. A woman breaks into her mother’s home to find money. In a prison cell, a woman asks for her television to be taken away: she knows how to electrocute herself with it: “it’s a straightforward activity”. An official – inexperienced and nervous – visits a woman she has not met before to tell her that her daughter is dead; she has hanged herself. On Rosie Elnile’s pale, boxed design, these scenes – in which the character’s names are those of the actors – are not continuous, but they are linked by common difficulties, recurring themes.

Together, one of the questions they raise is to what extent the damage caused to these women – and their children – is an unbreakable chain of harm: whether what looks predetermined could have been stopped. Irony and paradox are at work, for there is nothing predestined about [Blank]. The scenes so well acted here have been selected by the director, Maria Aberg, from a collection of 100 (the play text runs to over 500 pages): Birch leaves it up to each new director to decide on the number and the order. As if, even with the most difficult of starts, you might have alternatives.

Matt Smith and Claire Foy in Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs at the Old Vic.
Matt Smith and Claire Foy in Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs at the Old Vic: ‘vibrantly well acted’. Photograph: Helen Maybanks

Choice – the chief luxury that comes with money – is at the core of Lungs, Duncan Macmillan’s 2011 play in which a couple consider the pleasures and perils – for themselves and the planet – of having a baby. Like its fiancees – jittery but monogamous woman; sexually adventurous chap – it is a suprisingly conservative work from the dramatist who tore the stage apart with People, Places and Things and his adaptation of 1984. But it’s a surefire success: intricately, often dashingly written; sharply directed by Matthew Warchus and vibrantly well acted.

Claire Foy and Matt Smith chuck the ermine and epaulettes they wore as that other couple in The Crown, in favour of dungarees (her) and T-shirt (him) in a similar soft grey: they could be best friends who have decided to dress like each other. Each provides a repertoire of distinctive gestures and mannerisms, which stops just short of stereotype. Her hands whir like little windmills; his shoulders shift and roll. She talks nonstop in breathless bursts, interrupting herself to plead: “just let me talk”. He lounges and (probably) listens. Each skilfully slices, volleys and bounces Macmillan’s lines: “I want to split you apart…” he says a bit sheepishly. She comes back with: “In the right context, that’s fine.” At their most intense they are often far away from each other, lying back at opposite sides of a stage designed by Rob Howell from solar panels and glinting crystal slabs. The bare space doesn’t change but is said to do so, often to witty effect: ooh, we are in a queue in Ikea; ooh, we are in bed; ooh, we are – finally, and in rather a tacked-on gabble – stumbling towards a care home.

Siobhan Redmond in Vassa at the Almeida.
‘Coolly commanding’: Siobhan Redmond in Vassa at the Almeida. Photograph: Marc Brenner

Since Lungs was first staged, its ecological concerns – the couple fret about avocados and plastic bags as well as the carbon footprint of a baby – have become more pressing. Still, they seem to me lightly tethered to the plot rather than truly tugging it. This is an absorbing evening not because of any large environmental claims but because of the needling but generous dialogue that takes you into the heart of a couple.

Mike Bartlett – writer of King Charles III and Doctor Foster – has adapted Maxim Gorky’s 1910 attack on capitalism in tsarist Russia. Vassa could be the perfect corrective to traditional Chekhov stagings. No one is wiltingly aristocratic; nearly everyone has a mercantile heart; a few characters are seriously scathed, but most are unremittingly scathing. Not least the antiheroine of the title, an unbending matriarch, eager to secure the fortune of her dying husband, possibly by hastening his end: Siobhan Redmond slices the air mercilessly with the edge of her voice and her coolly commanding gestures.

Meanwhile, one of her daughters is having it off with her uncle, who has blackmailed her over an abortion; another turns out to have children by an adulterous liaison. There is infanticide and suicide and unremitting suspicion. All relations are skewed and the air is thick with insults. One person is called “a weird monastic crone”; another is jeered at for being fat; one of Vassa’s sons, who has a disability, complains to his mother that people look at him “as if I’m a freak”. Surely, Mummy replies, “you’re used to that”.

The evening opens with a declaration that the play “is set before a revolution”. Things should seem to be on the brink. They don’t. Amber James is unstintingly impressive in the difficult part of the almost-straight girl. Danny Kirrane’s giggling and dimpling seem to make him tumble across the stage. But though Tinuke Craig’s production is studded with remarkable moments, it moves at such a contemplative pace that what should be comic often curdles. Fly Davis has designed the stage for farce, with multiple doors for lurking behind or bursting out, but the burstings out are insufficiently explosive and the occasional fisticuffs are sluggish. The signs of a remarkable drama flash out from time to time, but though the evening simmers, it does not come to the boil.

Star ratings (out of five)
[Blank] ★★★★
Lungs ★★★★
Vassa ★★★

• [Blank] is at the Donmar Warehouse, London, until 30 November
• Lungs is at the Old Vic, London, until 9 November
• Vassa is at the Almeida, London, until 23 November


Susannah Clapp

The GuardianTramp

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