Michael Coveney at Last Night's First Night; Vassa by Maxim Gorky; Albery Theatre

Article excerpt

Byline: MICHAEL COVENEY

'WE can't pretend we're a close family' must qualify as the understatement of the year so far.

And in so saying, Sheila Hancock as the wily old matriarch Vassa in Gorky's lacerating Russian comedy raises the biggest laugh of a strangely funny evening.

This is the first version of a play that follows Chekhov's Cherry Orchard by a few years and adds a serrated edge. The family business in logs, tiles and lumps of peat is on the rocks.

The boss is dying upstairs and the family gather like vultures.

Vassa's two sons and her brother-in-law stand to inherit.

They think. One is a bungling cripple destined for a monastery, another a feeble crook with a suburban wife in tow, another a womanising rapscallion. A daughter-in-law sees goodness in the garden plants, sounds of old Russia come drifting through the high windows and there is murky talk of something nasty in the woodshed.

A baby has been killed, a bastard sired, letters suppressed.

The workers are taking to drink and a feeling of insecurity engulfs the community.

No wonder someone arranged a Revolution. …