A creeping hysteria has set in at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre. Sneezed out by snuff-snorting husbands, kept at bay by heart-palpitating suitors and screeched at stubborn, grasping creditors by angry widows, it's a lunacy which threatens to infect the audience as irresistible laughter ensues. Chekhov's Vaudevilles, by turns dry, melodramatic, raucous and eccentric are performed by the talented and energetic cast of promising new theatre company Mercurius.
These sketches and comic short stories of Russian life were written by Anton Chekhov essentially as a money-spinner to support his family after the bankruptcy of his father. Revived here in a lively production of Michael Frayn’s 1988 translation, these short pieces have again proved their worth in offering the audience an enjoyable and unique snapshot of Chekhov’s writing.
Throughout the evening’s six sketches, humour is served up by bizarre characters and situations, acerbic retorts and witty asides. A particularly memorable laugh arose in the opening sketch, ‘Drama,’ in which a writer finds his study rudely invaded by a determined young lady. Murashkina (Amy Hydes) is a wannabe playwright with more infuriating persistence than a hungry mosquito. While she recites her dire five-act play at length, an aggravated Vasilyevich (Tom Barratt) breaks through the clamoured clichés and contrived exchanges with his own exasperated commentary. As Murashkina gallops across the room announcing: ‘Enter Stage Left: a herd of Russian Cossacks’, Vasilyevich asks incredulously: ‘A herd of Cossacks? What on earth will she do with them?’ Murashkina immediately re-crosses the room gasping, ‘they gallop off,’ and Vasilyevich wryly answers his own question: ‘not a lot’.
‘The Inspector-General,’ in the second act, is an animated tableau of the supposedly undercover journey of this figure of authority (Tom Barratt). Shrouded in a tweed cloak, only the inspector’s eyes are visible as he attempts to arrive at his destination incognito, shunning a taxi for the back of an old apple cart. His endeavours however prove to be something less than ingenious as the cart’s driver, a mischievous Irishman (Matthew Forsythe), takes great pleasure in sharing local tattle as to the duplicitous character and habits of the new inspector, including his penchant for travelling cloaked and by horse and cart.
However it is likely to be the glorious madness of the final which will rest with you as you leave the theatre. In ‘The Proposal’, dithering suitor Lomov (Oliver Lavery) can’t quite bring himself to voice his marital intentions. Arriving at the house of neighbour and fellow landowner Chubukov (Jeremy Booth) and his daughter Natalya (Amy Hydes), Lomov is hampered in his objective not only by prolonged and vociferous arguments with both the girl and her father, but also by the tiny matter of a recurring heart tremor. As criticism is levelled at him by obstinate father and daughter alike, the equally obdurate Lomov teeters ever on the verge of an attack. As he suffers, he cuts some remarkably uncomfortable shapes indeed, seized up, doubled over, but never willing to back down in the quarrel.
Mercurius’ production of Anton Chekhov’s Vaudevilles is playing at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until June 16. Click here for tickets and information.