Review by Harry Bower
A woman walks into a bank… No, it’s not the start of an awful joke. Or is it? The comic tragedy in this story of modern-day Russia lies in its smart if blunt analysis of a country stuck in habitual societal decline and monotonous repetition. Or so Roxy Cook’s debut play would have you believe…
An old woman sits alone in her apartment on the fifth floor of an apartment block in Moscow. It’s 2018, and Russia is celebrating the delivery of a successful and incident-free FIFA World Cup. For some, it feels like a changed Russia, though as the characters inked by Cook remind us with their deadpan expressions and brutal truths - that inkling of hope and change is soon dashed. The old woman is confused and forgetful and finds herself drawn to the advertisement of a bank offering loans. The old woman forgets she has a daughter sending her money from abroad and is hoodwinked by the fresh-faced bank manager into signing his first ever loan agreement. It’s not long before the loan payments are due. There’s just one problem. You guessed it: the old woman has forgotten she even took the loan payment out in the first place.
The action unfolds in a comfortably retro carpet-lined room, with three carpet-lined chairs and numerous economical set cutaways which allow for future props to be hidden and revealed at the right moment. Three performers move around the space energetically, each forming one third of an overarching narration mechanic, sometimes finishing each other’s sentences. Sometimes this was a hindrance, both to the performance but also understanding relationships on stage. Generally though it is a novel and engaging way of telling a story.
Each actor has their own specific characters to inhabit, but together then slip seamlessly from third person into first, and with creative sleight of hand this multi-roling is incredibly effective. Cook as writer/director owns their material and achieves in making the stories being told feel unique and separate, while contributing still to the wider narrative and voice of the piece. Most impressive was the way each performer allowed the others their time to shine in whichever piece of characterisation was being attempted. In some fast-paced scenes I never felt out of breath or unsure of the context, and this is in large part down to the performers’ generosity and the deliberate direction.
The decision by Cook to write three four very separate versions of an intertwining story, from the perspectives of old woman, bank manager, debt collector, and cat, feels like a masterstroke. It allows space for each character’s arc to breathe. In many ways watching this play felt like watching a great episode of a television show, with each scene progressing the plot just enough to keep each point nudging along until they converged at the end. That ending is an impressive one, by the way, adding to a much stronger act two than act one. That’s perhaps because in act one the audience are learning and warming to the unusual storytelling methods – not a bad thing, but certainly impactful when returning from the break. There is refined comedic interaction and throwaway laughs laced into most scenes, necessary light relief and a distraction from an otherwise beige and visually static set and lighting design, and the physical elements of the movement between and during scenes are also excellent.
Performances throughout are often darkly comic and tongue in cheek, and retain a sense of mischievousness even in the most poignant of moments. This is a cast which very well understands the sarcasm and social commentary embedded in every line and plot point and hams it up at every opportune moment. Giulia Innocenti has cracked the old woman’s fragile but suspicious and deeply funny mannerisms, carving out a believable and somewhat lovable caricature of what is technically the piece’s victim, while somehow making sure the audience never view the character with much sympathy.
Sam Newton plays the young man (and others) and it seems his brain is working light years faster than everyone else in the theatre, his eyes darting around as quickly as his characters do. Newton plays as some sort of pseudo pace-director, always seeming to dictate transitions. He is captivating, treading close to over-doing it but always knowing when to pull back (and the writing helps him; he is perfectly cast). Completing the trio is Keith Dunphy, as the debt collector (and others). Deadpan, scary, warm, and naturally funny – Dunphy could be cast as any role in any production, probably, and I’d believe it. His performance brings the necessary darkness to the otherwise amusing sight of two actors pretending to be a cat, and his staring down of audience members will live long in the memory.
The marketing blurb describes this show as an interrogation of the social apathy tearing Russia apart – and it’s certainly that. The ultimate result of watching two hours of social commentary on life in Russia, for someone who hasn’t ever visited the country, is that you believe what is being presented on-stage without interrogating it. Actually, A Woman Walks Into A Bank might even be described by some more suspicious folk as stereotypical Western propaganda against Russia. I don’t think it is. It doesn’t paint Russian people in a bad light, and aside from a handful of obvious tropes, it doesn’t set out to offend or use inherent ‘Russianness’ as its comedy.
It is a sad and deeply relatable story of a country which is stuck, and a people who seem to be repeatedly falling into the same traps again and again. Perhaps it’s worse than that, and worse than we fully understand – and that living in Russia really is like living in perma-crisis with crime rife, aspirations low, a struggling economy and working people being taken advantage of. My thoughts feel provoked and my brain has been ticking over since leaving the theatre. Primarily it feels as though living and watching this production today, in Britain, in November 2023, that story feels a lot more relatable than perhaps we’d like it to be.
A Woman Walks Into A Bank plays at Theatre503 until December 2023. For more information and tickets visit https://theatre503.com/whats-on/
Photos by David Monteith-Hodge