Review - Vassa at the Almeida Theatre
The default description of the Almeida Theatre is invariably to call it a powerhouse - in a review for a West End transfer of Mary Stuart last year, Fiona Mountford wrote in the Evening Standard, "The all-conquering Almeida is at it again. This Islington powerhouse has of late become the most dependable purveyor of quality hits to the West End, with the likes of Ink, Andrew Scott's Hamlet and a reworked Oresteia." Their summer production The Doctor is also now West End bound to the Duke of York's next April; it is probably the single most essential theatre in London.
Even the most successful theatres must suffer - and be allowed - the occasional misfire. But the thudding disappointment of Vassa is amplified by the multiple promises of an adaptation by Mike Bartlett (who previously gave the Almeida one of its biggest recent stage successes King Charles III, transferring both to the West End and Broadway, Albion and Game), the fast-rising director Tinuke Craig at the helm, and Samantha Bond originally announced to be starring in the title role. Although Bond is still be seen on the tube posters around town, she was replaced midway through rehearsals by Siobhán Redmond.
The play is a historical curiosity from the great Russian writer Maxim Gorky, originally written in 1910 and then re-written by him in 1936, but is here adapted from the earlier version into a would-be frantic farce of a family tearing itself apart in a struggle for survival. But laughter is thin on the ground amidst this extremely laboured portrait of a gallery of grotesques.
The stakes for them may be high as the unseen patriarch is dying and his soon-to-be-widowed wife and three adult children start squabbling over their inheritance. But it is impossible to become invested in their plight on any level, whether as comedy or tragedy. The capable actors are directed, it seems, to extremes of caricature and over-acting, though there's a more brittle sense of containment to Redmond's lead performance as the forever-scheming matriarch.
The result is the year's most disappointing show so far.