Arts: Theatre: And all because mother knows best

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The Independent Culture
THE LAST time Sheila Hancock performed in the West End it was as Mrs Lovett in Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, a character who has all the perverted maternal instincts of a Rosemary West. Later this year, she is scheduled to play Momma Rose in the musical Gypsy, a pushy stage mother who could eat Mrs Worthington for breakfast. Meanwhile, in Howard Davies's new, savagely funny, if rather under-powered, production of Gorky's 1906 play, Vassa, Hancock bags another monstrous matriarch.

Here she assumes the eponymous role of the iron-willed, pre-revolutionary materfamilias whose determination to cling on to her dying husband's building business for the sake of her family almost makes her the equal of Mother Courage in indomitability.

Hatchet-faced, in grim garb and equipped with a dourly deflating drawl, Hancock's Vassa surveys the family members gathering in her office with a look that would sour milk at 10 paces. There's a comically bleak matter- of-factness in the casual way she remarks how she wishes she had put down at birth the hunchbacked son, whose bitterness has become warped into a furious slapstick routine in David Tennant's vivid portrayal. Hancock valuably brings out the quieter shades in this anti-heroine: the sensitivities she has had to quell in her fight to stay on top; the heart palpitations; and the puncturing anxieties of a woman terrified that her brother-in-law (a humorously disreputable Ron Cook) is about to pull his money out of the business. The approach pays off best in the beautifully achieved final scene, where the full tragic ambiguity of the character is released.

The loneliness of this little-loved woman emanates from Hancock like a cold mist. It's pitiable how, having dismissively dispatched her own children, Vassa clutches at the idea of the next generation. She has been caught in capitalism's classic bind: work that should be a means to an end becomes an end in itself, cutting you off from the very loved ones for whose sake you are supposed to be toiling. On the other hand, Hancock could afford to suggest much more forcefully the Ena Sharples aspects of the role: the underlying granite and wilfulness. This is not a characterisation that powers the evening forward.

Despite the Slavic songs, the production sometimes feels about as Russian as Rutherford & Son. The cast, however, animate the rancid group dynamics of this ill-assorted clan who behave like a bunch of bemused vultures, circling and colliding into each other.

Nor does Davies play down the gasp-makingly sick comedy of the murderous blackmail that provides a resolution of sorts.

Aisling O'Sullivan is superb as the daughter, Anna, who returns home dripping new-found drop-dead glamour. Her growing realisation that not only is she a hard-boiled chip off the maternal block, but she may one day be the block itself, is expertly judged. From among the rest, Debra Gillett is a hilarious bundle of buttoned-up, bustling censoriousness as Natalya, the daughter-in-law who wants to move and live near a nice army. Come to think of it, given what happened a few years later, that desire is not as daft as it sounds.