A recent Guardian profile of playwright Joseph Charlton lamented how, prior to Anna X’s current run at The Harold Pinter Theatre, his plays had only been seen at the “cramped, damp spaces of the Vaults beneath Waterloo”.
Now, as someone who happened to have reviewed Charlton and director Daniel Raggett’s original production at those very same Vaults, I found this a rather lazy, elitist dismissal of what is amongst the most exciting theatrical scenes in the UK. Anna X was stunning in that setting — the post-industrial landscape of the old railway tunnels, along with the intimate fringe setting, suited this adroit and dynamic production excellently.
Thankfully, much that was brilliant about the original has been kept, with just a few extra scenes to flesh it out. The play is inspired by Anna Sorokin, the woman who pretended to be a wealthy German heiress, conning New York high society out of more than $200,000. The Anna of Charlton’s play is Russian rather than German, but the tale of vaunting ambition against the superficial milieu of elite New Yorkers is the same.
Interlaced narratives tell the story of Anna and her boyfriend Ariel, a tech bro who has left his sweet girlfriend in the Mid-West to launch and run a dating app for the rich and famous, which has now been valued at 200 million dollars. Both are intensely different in their self-presentation, but are nevertheless aligned through the fact that they are fakers in this most ‘cool’ of social scenes.
Charlton’s script is excellent, offering razor-sharp, deconstructive satire of the late capitalist New York art world. “Everyone is queer”, “everyone is feeling something”, and Anna herself being “always elegantly wasted”, are just some of the lines that stand out. The narrative journey feels almost like a Ronan Farrow long-read, jumping from place to place, experience to experience, in an endless rush of revelation and titillation.
Beyond heralding what is (hopefully) now the permanent reopening of London’s theatreland, Anna X is also significant for being the West End debut of two exciting young stars: Industry actor Nabhaan Rizwan, and Emma Corrin, recently awarded a Golden-Globe for playing Princess Diana in Netflix’s The Crown. Both actors inhabit their roles excellently, right down to Corrin’s Russian-Ukrainian accent. It is a stellar opportunity for them both to flex their theatrical acting chops, performing not only two fascinating leads, but also the myriad of other characters that appear throughout.
Seventy-six brightly-lit blocks made up the backdrop, continually projecting wherever Ariel and Anna happened to find themselves, whether a nightclub, sushi restaurant, or the vast New York cityscape from the top of a skyscraper. While these are visually exciting, Charlton’s already-sparky script might have been better complimented by a more subdued space that would not have fought with the actors for the audience’s attention.
The somewhat stifling backdrop, plonked right in the middle of a heavily ornamented Victorian theatre, jars with what is an intensely human, character-driven plot. Corrin and Rizwan also sound a little quiet against the tech-house-filled soundtrack, contributing to a feeling that, while the broader satire certainly remains excoriating, the story fails to carry the same level of emotional gut-punch that was the case at The Vaults.
Nevertheless, this is a story that will remain compelling wherever it is told. And all credit to Sonia Friedman, for agreeing to champion emerging writing even when the pandemic might otherwise have made more commercial productions a more obvious choice.
Anna X is playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 17/01/20. For more information, see ATG Tickets online.