A Woman Walks into a Bank

Reviewer's rating

This is an intriguing play about a series of events that take place in Moscow in 2018. These events bring together three characters struggling to cope in the difficult world of post-soviet Russia. An old woman (none of the characters has a name) walks into a bank. She is persuaded by an ambitious young bank employee (possibly a new manager) to take out a high interest loan which she cannot repay. Writer Roxy Cook uses this scenario to ask some very tough questions about how people survive in hard times. It is very easy to imagine a similar sequence of events in modern England.

An elderly woman, possibly with early signs of dementia, sees an advert for a bank that offers loans which appear to her to be “free money”. She has support from her daughter, who may be working abroad, but forgets where this money has been hidden. She enters the bank and a young man who has just been promoted to “bank manager” – though it is very vague just what status this confers on him – manages to sign her up. It subsequently becomes clear that she is failing to meet her repayments. A debt collector is allocated the task of collecting the money. Eventually the woman, the young man, and the debt collector meet in the woman’s apartment and the string of misunderstandings reaches a violent climax.

The play has interesting things to say about money and how it skews human relationships but the format of the play – and the performances of the three actors – are the features that raise it to another level. The set is a simple box with a series of hidden niches where the old woman’s possessions are hidden – the walls are decorated with an eye-catching design that sometimes looks like a Persian carpet and make the space increasingly claustrophobic as the drama develops. The three actors begin as narrators and revert to that role often but more and more they take on the characters of the three antagonists. This leads to a fascinating tension  – and one is constantly faced with questions about whether they understand more about their behaviours than seems at first apparent, particularly towards the climax when the woman takes actions which are understandable but unexpected.

Giulia Innocenti brings a fine mixture of vulnerability and steely determination to the role of the ‘old woman’ – one is never quite sure if she is confused or if she is feigning confusion. It is a splendid nuanced performance never better than in the final disturbing scenes. Sam Newton, as the ‘young man’, turns in a fine performance as someone who is determined to get on in a financial world that he does not fully understand or, as it turns out, really feel at home in. His discomfort as the reality of the train of events that he has set in motion comes home to him is palpable. Keith Dunphy as the “debt collector” is by turns threatening and reluctant  – he looms over the other two but never seems entirely comfortable with his task. There is a wonderful tea party scene with a Pinteresque sense of menace. And, even at the end, it is not entirely clear what has happened as once again the unreliable narrators take us off down different paths.

This is a three hander that turns out to be much more than the sum of its parts. It is a play that deserves that after-show discussion  – in the theatre or in the bar – that often illuminates when you find that your friends have seen things in the play that you missed. And it has that sense we find in some fine plays that it is about a lot more than the simple story that the writer offers us. Well worth an evening in Battersea.