Review: Vassa Zheleznova, Southwark Playhouse

“You’re quite something, aren’t you”

The Faction are probably best known for their repertory seasons, running over the early months of the last six years at the New Diorama, brightening up dark wintry nights with their inventive reimaginings of classical plays. Their tenure there has now come to an end though and so they’re branching out to alternative venues and times of the year, popping up now at the Southwark Playhouse with a new version of Gorky’s rarely-performed Vassa Zheleznova.

Adapted by Emily Juniper who has transported the play to a Liverpool in the midst of the dockers’ strike of the mid-90s, Sian Polhill-Thomas’ Vassa is the tough-as-nails head of a shipping company whose grip on power is slowly being loosened. The business belonged to her husband’s family but he’s long been busy failing to be a rock star, so it has been her guts and determination that has built the firm’s success, but at some considerable personal cost and as crisis looms, things don’t look to be getting any easier.

As her husband dies an ignominious death under the shadow of public shame, her daughters turn against her and professionally, she’s got the press to think about as well as her striking workforce. Director Rachel Valentine-Smith keeps the action in Vassa’s office but the mutable design choice of platforms keeps the perspective shifting, as estranged family members and disgruntled employees repeatedly rattle the certainties of her world, pushing her to ever-more extreme action in the name of protecting her business, her family, herself.

The production never quite lands on a satisfactory delivery model though. An early sequence of the striking movement that is typical of this company is not repeated, losing something of what makes The Faction stand out. And though the play impressively puts its female characters at the forefront of the action, it does little to make us connect with them – characters don’t need to be likeable to be engaging but I found something to unremitting about this tortured family grouping.

And it does become a family drama, the social implications of the 90s setting and its complex industrial politics become less and less important as personal betrayal and child abuse scandals rear their head. The performances are committed though – I enjoyed Andy McLeod’s disillusioned former rocker and Amelia Donkor’s doubling as Vassa’s put-upon office lackey and her proud daughter-in-law – but the relentless drive of the brutally dark world of Vassa Zheleznova does make it sometimes tough to watch.   

Running time: 100 minutes (without interval)
Photo: Ricky J Payne

Booking until 9th July

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