Anton Chekhov’s Vaudevilles And Other Sketches, at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre, offers a highly entertaining night of theatre, and is well worth a visit.
Although now mainly eclipsed by his more popular full length dramas, such as The Seagull and Uncle Vanya, Chekhov was one of the most successful writers of short stories in Russia during his lifetime. Vaudevilles is a series of one-act plays and three dramatised short stories written at the height of his career.
The evening begins with two shorts; Drama, where a famous writer’s afternoon is ruined by a very untalented but unstoppable would-be-dramatist, followed by Alien Corn, where anti-French sentiment runs riot. The first act concludes with the first full length sketch of the evening, The Bear, in which smoking guns mirror runaway passions. The second act opens with the only monologue of the evening, The Evils Of Tobacco, followed by another short, The Inspector General. The Proposal, another full length sketch in which a potentially married couple can’t agree on anything, ends the evening.
The pieces have been adapted by award winning writer Michael Frayn, and first appeared in The Sneeze at the Theatre Royal, Newcasle-upon-Tyne in 1988. The adaptations work best with the longer sketches where the dialogue and characters are allowed to develop, and consequently have more dramatic impact. The short sketches actually seem more like fillers than contributions to the evening as the characters are one-dimensional and the humour almost cartoon-like. Indeed, the evening could have run quite happily with just the sketches. The Bear, which was by far the strongest work of the night, had enough body and clout to stand alone as the only piece of the first act. The surprise delight of the evening was the monologue, The Evils of Tobacco, where a middle-aged ‘house husband’ appears on stage in a shabby suit to talk about tobacco but ends up giving an inner monologue about being terrorised by his wife and children. The wonderfully rich text explores a whole range of emotions that leave you pitying and cringing at the same time. This, combined with a spot-on performance by Jeremy Booth, became for me an excellent reminder of why I go to the theatre: to be entertained, challenged and constantly surprised by the revelations of the characters and their stories. The final piece of the evening, The Proposal, perfectly encapsulates what Chekhov does best, portraying the complexities and absurdity of the human condition where logic and emotions seem destined to be at war with each other.
All of the cast give strong performances. Matthew Forsythe and Amy Hydes are finely matched as the fiery couple in The Bear, and Oliver Lavery, in The Proposal, displays outstanding comic timing as the angina-troubled Lomov. Tom Barratt is also convincing in his various roles, and the production runs smoothly throughout due to Jenny Eastop’s slick direction.
Vaudevilles is produced by Mercurius, a new company that was set up in 2011 by several of the show’s cast members with the aim of creating theatre that personally inspires them, and explores a range of writing from new to neglected classics. As a first production, Vaudevilles is an impressive start. Go and enjoy the drama while you can.