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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Vanessa and Virginia
Riverside Studios Spring 2013

Translating the lives of real people into the medium of fiction is always a challenge, but Moving Pictures’ Vanessa and Virginia is something even further removed – a play that is itself adapted from the Susan Sellers novel of the same name. 

Perhaps it is this extra distance from the real lives of Virginia Woolf and her sister, Vanessa Bell, that makes the play feel so distilled, so distant from the lives of these fascinating women.

Much of the play takes the form of a monologue spoken by Vanessa, who survived her sister by twenty years, and via reams of short scenes we are shown their entire shared lives, from the nursery room up to Virginia’s suicide in 1941. 

Kitty Randle struggles with Vanessa’s upper class vowels and has a tendency towards melodrama, though she is nicely balanced by a generally more restrained performance from Alice Frankham as Woolf.

Though undoubtedly the more famous of the two, this is a version of Woolf as seen through the prism of a shared childhood and a co-dependent adulthood – she hovers at the edges of everything Vanessa thinks and says and does, but her inner life is necessarily unknowable.

All this means that we skate around the edges of Woolf’s mental ill health as around an iceberg, seeing only glimpses, but aware of its vastness. It is a relief that they touch on it so little: what we see is strangely pat and shorthand, as if because this element of her life is so famous that Moving Pictures feel they need not try to examine it with any originality.

It is ironic to have Frankham, as Woolf, complain wittily and articulately about Shakespeare's women in one breath, only to depict her madness as something so Ophelia-esque in the next, comprised of ramblings and sudden shrieks. To look so whimsically at the illness that destroyed her feels almost insulting.

This is the problem with much of
Vanessa and Virginia: though well-intentioned and occasionally moving, the whole thing is painted with too thick a brush to have any real subtlety. One could guess this from the moment one enters the theatre and sees Kate Unwin’s set: though beautiful to look at and inventively used, it is essentially a large paint-splattered canvas, edged by discarded pages, just in case one hadn’t realised that the play is about an artist and an author.

If the audience don’t know even this much, they will soon be thoroughly lost, as an assumed knowledge of constantly name-checked bit-players will make
Vanessa and Virginia feel impenetrable to those with little knowledge of the period.

Existing fans will know enough to keep up, but are likely to be disappointed by a play that is trying to pack in every little thing – inevitably, in trying to do so much, Vanessa and Virginia achieves disappointingly little.

Lauren Mooney

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Review - Vanessa and Virginia - Riverside Studios 2013  

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