The production is inseparable from the play when it comes to Anna X,
the dazzling 80-minute theatrical joyride that brings the producer Sonia Friedman's RE:EMERGE season of new writing in a commercial context to a tremendous finish. Of the trio of plays under her auspices, following the dreary Walden
and the lively J'Ouvert
, Joseph Charlton's two-hander seems the one most obviously assured of a future life, not least in New York, where it is set. Whatever its onward trajectory, Charlton's wily examination of self-invention in our fractured digital age is served to the hilt and beyond by a staging from Daniel Raggett that marks out this young director as someone to watch. Indeed, one is immediately put in mind of such forbears as Rupert Goold and Rob Icke when it comes to directorial showmen who can serve text while proffering a visceral sensory experience.
Events get off to an immediately electric start with a chance encounter in a club. The eponymous Anna has popped a pill with Donald Trump's head on it (that apparently insignificant detail resounds hauntingly near the close) and strikes up a chat with Ariel, a tech world brainiac who has devised a dating app that is about separating the wheat from the chaff. Their world, it's clear, is one of big money, not to mention the promise always of yet more money, and a fondness for start-ups that resonates when it comes to the individual, as well. After all, what are any of us — especially in the presence of a stranger — but our own personal start-up, given over to varying degrees of self-invention as we draw that other person into our orbit, or not.
The con artist in our midst is a literary mainstay, whether one thinks of The Talented Mr Ripley, for example, or an era-defining play like John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation, to which Charlton seems to pay homage not least in an extensive use of direct address to the audience. At times, he over-deploys that device; you want these two to continue their feisty and spirited repartee unencumbered by a need to report events as opposed to dramatising them. Then again, the self-evident source material at play here (albeit greatly fictionalised in the process) deserves elaboration. Anna X draws upon the saga of the so-called "fake heiress" Anna Sorokin, who passed herself off via the pseudonym Anna Delvey and was imprisoned in 2019 after being found guilty on eight charges of differing degrees of duplicity and fraud. The story attracted attention in the press and has since sparked the imagination of various film companies. Charlton, a one-time journalist himself, has a nifty movie in embryo here, though it would be a shame to see the narrative stripped of the technical razzle-dazzle with which director Raggett sells it onstage.
The play was first seen at London's VAULT Festival in 2019, where Anna was played by Rosie Sheehy, who has since moved on to the imminent West End revival of Oleanna
- another two-hander with the name Anna embedded in the title. Her part here falls to recent Golden Globe winner and Emmy nominee Emma Corrin
, whose portrayal of Princess Diana in The Crown must have given them at least a glimpse into the way in which people fashion a persona they want the world to see. Lean and intensely charismatic onstage, Corrin is terrific, playing not just the intriguingly adnrogynous Anna but a motley array of others, men and women, who are encountered along the way. They're a natural shape-shifter, which is perfect for the part.
Corrin is adroitly partnered by Nabhaan Rizwan as an instantly likeable Ariel, who, like Anna, exists in an intensely image-conscious world that here allows the virtuosic design team of Mikaela Liakata and Tal Yarden to fashion a kaleidoscopic visual funfair that acts as its own kind of drug; Jessica Hung Han Yun's lighting is itself a marvel, adding to the sense of playfulness in a climate keen to bill itself as one long party lest the hangover be too awful to contemplate.
When that reckoning comes, as it must, it arrives via a gently moving denouement about the "playground" that is America: a place where lying can bring with it not a criminal record but, conversely, ever-greater entrepreneurship and money and fame (Trump, anyone?) People often talk of something being a play for today merely because it ticks certain boxes, but Anna X really is a product of and for our times, and the deliberate anonymity of the title could not be more ironic in light of the renown this West End perch looks likely to bring to everyone involved.
Photo credit: Anna X (Photo by Helen Murray)