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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Almeida Theatre   Autumn 2019

Maxim Gorky may not be the world's greatest playwright. But whatever adapter Mike Bartlett and director Tinuke Craig saw in his 1911 look at Russia's home-grown brand of capitalism has not found its way successfully to the stage.

Vassa is a lifeless, shapeless plod of a play, and an increasingly desperate-looking cast seem like ten actors in search of a director.

In a very brief period at the start of the Twentieth Century capitalism in Russia was born, flourished and rotted away. The play focuses on one family business in crisis.

Father is dying, his sons are in their various ways totally unequipped to take over, uncle is determined to strip the company and live hedonistically on his takings, and mother is struggling to seize and retain control.

There are at least two murders, one suicide, a blatant forgery and rampant adulteries and cross-blackmailing throughout the family.

And what are we to make of this? There is the raw material for angry exposure of a corrupt system, social satire, high and low melodrama, soap opera and even farce.

The problem with this production is not that director Craig keeps switching between tones and modes, but that she doesn't seem to have chosen any.

Unsure what tone they are to establish or, indeed, what acting style to employ, the actors go their separate ways, too often not seeming to inhabit the same reality.

As the mother totally unscrupulous in getting what she wants, Siobhan Redmond sometimes suggests a Panto villain, but without that figure's delight in her own nastiness.

Danny Kirrane seems to sense the comic potential of the son with so little imagination and drive that his highest ambition is to open a small jewellery shop, but he is not allowed to go anywhere with it, while Arthur Hughes as the disabled and cuckolded other son plays for pathos while everyone around him treats him as comic.

Imagine an Arthur Miller play without the moral outrage, a Woody Allen dissection of middle class hypocrisy without the wit, the old American TV soaps Dynasty and Dallas without the high-camp melodramatics. That's what you have here.

There is no assurance that any of these approaches – or any other – would have been successful. But the surest way to theatrical lifelessness is not to choose any.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Vassa - Almeida Theatre 2019
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