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A CurtainUp London Review

"Has my husband died yet?"
— Vassa
Siobhan Redmond as Vassa
(Photo: Marc Brenner)
It is extremely rare to see as disastrous a play as Vassa at the invariably reliable Almeida. They lost their star Samantha Bond due to injury a week before opening and the highly competent actor Siobhan Redmond stepped into the lead role as the millionaire business woman Vassa Zheleznova.

The director Tinuke Craig has very little experience and it may be that these complicated Russian tragi-comedies need more experienced direction but surely she should have been supported. I don't know so this is speculation. All I can tell you is that the production I saw was uneven and unclear as to what it was all about.

I cannot put the blame at the writer's door or adaptor in this case as Mike Bartlett is probably our most talented writer working in England today with his fascinating and ground breaking productions from the early work at the Royal Court which had me going into the National Theatre's bookshop and asking for Mike Bartlet''s Cock only to be told that it had sold out and I would have to ask again in a few days. There were other great plays in between but the one I loved most was Charles III Tim Pigott Smith's last play as the dithering monarch defending the freedom of the press against an interfering government. Surely there will be more room for politically inspired plays from Mike Bartlett with the Brexit debacle? Albion returns to the Almeida in the Spring of 2020.

Ok back to Vassa the production in hand. Vassa Zheleznova's husband is dying upstairs and her children are not shaping up to taking over her building materials business. A disabled actor with a damaged arm and hand (Arthur Hughes) plays Pavel her disabled son who is disastrously married to the nymphomaniac Lyudmila (Sophie Wu). Vassa doesn't hold back when it comes to denigrating the wheedling Pavel including saying things like, "Look at You!" The audience might want to laugh but an awkwardness has been created by the actor's obvious disability and we are embarrassed to laugh lest someone should think we are mocking disability.

Vassa's other son Semyon (Danny Kirrane) is morbidly obese. Are we allowed to comment on body shape in reviews? I think so. Semyon does not cover up in the first scene where he wears just a pair of underpants sporting his full girth. Semyon's laugh is a squeal like a piglet. Semyon's wife Natalya (Kayla Meikle) says some things that sound like calls for more social justice and a fairer treatment of servants but in the end she is a self serving sycophant. The message we are getting about Vassa's family is that they are worthless creatures and undeserving of inheriting her wealth but all expecting it.

Vassa's character is so deeply unpleasant as she abuses everyone, that it is impossible to feel any sympathy for her in her lack of deserving relatives. Only Anna (Amber James) a beautiful girl who has been living elsewhere seems to be the likeable daughter. Completing the family are Vassa's brother in law Prokhor (Michael Gould) who is counting on a large inheritance from his brother and Lyudmila's father Mikhail (Cyril Nri). The cast is completed by servants Lipa (Alexandra Dowling) and Dunya (Daniella Isaacs).

In the opening scene Lyudmila has been missed after spending the night with her husband's uncle Prokhor who tipples and waters the decanter of brandy to replace the level. Dressing Lyudmila in a very short muslin frilled dress like a small child underlines her misplaced promiscuity.

Siobhan Redmond appears to be peering out from behind her spectacles as she single mindedly looks after the business but not her own family, blind to their needs. Her rule of her family and servants is full of abuse and bitter invective. In an early scene she takes apart the servant Lipa (Alexandra Dowling) illustrating what Lipa would have to do without her job with Vassa from prostitution to being eaten by rats.

In Act Three after the interval, we are at the funeral of Vassa's husband and the cast are arranged on chairs round the edge of the flower strewn stage, posed like statues with exaggerated limbs. The funeral flowers are trampled underfoot as those expecting to inherit are disappointed.

As an exile in Capri, Gorky was writing between the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 and the play was meant to be a bitter comedy about the capitalist merchant class. On the night I saw no-one was laughing.

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Written by Maxim Gorky
Adapted by Mike Bartlett
Directed by Tinuke Craig
Starring: Siobhan Redmond, Michael Gough
With: Sophie Wu, Arthur Hughes, Danielle Isaacs, Amber James, Danny Kirrane, Kayla Meikle, Cyril Nri
Design: Fly Davis
Lighting Design: Joshua Pharo
Sound: Emma Laxton
Movement: Jenny Ogilvie
Running time: Two hours including one interval
Box Office: 020 7359 4404
Booking to 23rd November 2019
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 24th October 2019 evening performance at The Almeida, Almeida Street, London N1 1TA (Tube: The Angel)
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