A Woman Walks Into A Bank, so begins Roxy Cook’s new play at Theatre503. Winner of the theatre’s International Playwriting Award, Cook’s play is surreal, trippy, and wonderfully human.
The year is 2018, and Russia is basking in the afterglow of the World Cup’s success. Yet, underneath the national pride lies a country grappling with economic hardship and a growing sense of disillusionment.
This modern-day parable inverts expectations; this is not a play about Oligarchs, spies and politicians, but a portrayal of a country in crisis. Cook, who has written and directed, explores the lives of three ordinary Russians.
Cook has said her central character is loosely based on her grandmother. The Old Woman is stoic, principled and kind. Her daughter is overseas and the woman’s isolation in old age is tragic. Giulia Innocenti captures the hunched physicality of the woman, whose independence is rapidly fading away as dementia takes hold.
The Old Woman has been using rubbles since Stalin’s reign and prefers to keep bank notes in a box above her wardrobe. When A Young Man, played by a blisteringly funny Sam Newton, coerces her into a dodgy bank loan, The Old Woman has no one to help her.
It is a slow-to-start two-hander until a wonderfully timed entrance from Keith Dunphy’s Debt Collector. With the blink of an eye, Dunphy’s performance is both sinister and hilarious.
Act One gets weighed down by the stylised choice to describe rather than depict action. Almost everything is spoken in the same register as the title, giving the text a fairy tale feel, but refusing the performers the chance to interact as characters. Phrases are endlessly repeated and irrelevant subplots stretch.
When characters break free from the restrictive register, the play comes to life. Inventively directed scenes in a Moscow nightclub ooze with energy and the impressively committed performances are entirely plausible.
Act Two picks up when the three narratives collide as the menacing debt collector arrives at the woman’s apartment.
Surreal and distinctly Soviet, David Allen’s carpeted set is a fourth character, revealing itself to assist the narrative. Allen’s costume design, too, is wonderfully authentic.
Cook’s text is sprinkled with asides to the audience and nods to Russian stereotypes. True to its surreal structure, the play ends in exactly the same place it begins as a bewildered woman walks into a bank.
More Beckettian than Chekovian, A Woman Walks Into A Bank is a frustrating piece of theatre that exposes the human cost of financial systems run amok and the anti-climactic nature of modern life, leaving a lingering sense of unease.