Melissa Blease reviews Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, on at Ustinov Studio
until 6 July

Cooped up in the same Pennsylvanian farmhouse where they grew up (and later cared for their parents until their death), siblings Vanya and Sonia know that life has somehow passed them by. Sister Masha, however, has lived her life to the full: a former big-time movie star whose earnings have kept the family’s roof over their heads in her absence, she has five failed marriages under her belt, fewer and fewer career ‘opportunities’ on the horizon… and a 20-something inamorato (that’ll be Spike, then) toying with her self-absorbed emotions.

Meanwhile, crazy clairvoyant housekeeper Cassandra spends more time fixating on ominous portents of doom than she does cleaning, and young aspiring actress Nina… actually, Nina’s just nice. 

Put them together and what have you got? A polished, witty revival of Christopher Durang’s 2012 comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, which opens the Theatre Royal Bath’s Ustinov Studio Summer Season on a very lighthearted note indeed. 

As the title, set-up and main character’s names suggest, V&T&M&S channels Chekhov in a similar way to how Cassandra channels Whoopi Goldberg’s Oda Mae Brown having a psychic ‘turn’: Durang has fun with the inspiration without attempting to put some kind of serious update spin on Chekhov’s classic drama (which happens to be showing in the TRB main house from 18 July 18 – 3 August). Yes, you’ll spot the the same heavy-hearted regrets linking both Chekhov and Durang’s Vanyas, while there are multiple references to the great Russian playwright’s Seagull, Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters, too. But we’re most definitely not on meta-drama territory here; it’s more smart sit-com merry-go-round than mise en abyme.

As Vanya, Mark Hadfield is a softly-twinkling gem: doleful, despondent, disheartened by circumstance, you just want to give him a great big hug and take him out (of his closet) for several gins. While his lengthy eulogy to days gone by in the second half of the play is a tad laborious, this is Durang’s error and most definitely not Hadfield’s fault; he gives the rambling, clumsy speech (clumsy in comparison to the rest of the largely fast-paced script) as much fervour as it’s possible to give a diatribe on the long since exhausted topic of young people losing the skills to communicate away from a screen and ultimately, the scene offers Hadfield’s character the kind of protean vitality that suggests he may have better days to come.

Elsewhere, Janie Dee is an Ab Fab Masha, effortlessly oozing high camp, high wit and high (melo)drama with full-on Diva thrust, Lewis Reeves is totes titillating as toy boy Spike, Aysha Kala a suitably super-cute Nina and Michelle Asante a little bit too stereotypically eccentric as the stereotypically eccentric Cassandra (the only character that one could imagine a more dictatorial director than Walter Bobbie flagging up as needing more work).

But it is perhaps Rebecca Lacey as Vanya’s adopted sister Sonia who’s spotlight star shines the brightest; a pleasure to accompany on her transformative journey from downtrodden underdog to ‘Maggie Smith’, Lacey packs a commendable theatrical punch as every character’s foil but ultimately nobody’s fool. 

Way wittier than an Ayckbourn comedy (theatre critics have often been likened Durang to Ayckbourn in an “American counterpart” way), far smarter than mere straightforward farce and closer to late-season Seinfeld than soap opera, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is well worth Cheking out.

Main image: Mark Hadfield (Vanya), Janie Dee (Masha), Lewis Reeves (Spike), Aysha Kala (Nina)