Almeida Theatre, London ★★★★✩
IF YOU are already dreading Christmas and a feast of recriminations with your nearest and dearest, then this biliously funny family drama will have a familiar flavour.
It is an adaptation by Mike Bartlett of Maxim Gorky’s little-performed 1910 Russian classic. Originally written on the brink of revolution, in this version the play becomes a grotesquely vivid illustration of the failures of capitalism, the ways in which greed and self-interest make monsters of us and how uncertain times breed extreme behaviour.
In our current politically polarised, cash-strapped days, it’s bitterly bracing and as brisk and cartoonish as a viral meme. Tinuke Craig’s sharp, stylish production is acted with savage panache and a sense of rising panic.
Vassa, the matriarch — played by Siobhan Redmond, all steel-trap mind and gimlet eye — heads both the household and the family business. Her husband is dying, but all too slowly. Her children, their spouses and a creepy uncle are scheming, cheating, and fretting about their share of the spoils. Vassa maintains her grip with ruthless cunning and a dash of breathtaking sadism.
‘Whatever it takes to protect your flesh and blood,’ she declares icily, her disdain for the bigger picture almost Thatcherite. But, like those austerity measures that we are assured by the government are for our own good, her regime inflicts terrible collateral damage.
There are tiny winks of the woman inside the despot, quashing her qualms and compassion to do what she believes is right.
But this is a brutal watch — and nastily entertaining.