Theatre : Dandy, but not quite fine

THE travels of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya continue: from Anthony Hopkins's Clwyd to Louis Malle's Manhattan, and now to Derrywhere Field Day's touring production opened last week.

A lot of hope was riding on this show, which reunites three of the team from Peter Gill's unforgettable 1980s Cherry Orchard. Chekhov over the past 20 years has become an honorary Irish author; never more so, you might think, than in the arrival of this play - with its story of internal strife and promises of future peace - in the same week as the Northern Ireland framework document. At which point the all-too-familiar chasm opens up between expectation and achievement.

Gill's production is better than Hopkins's, but that is not saying much. Adapted by Frank McGuinness, the piece is billed as a "world premire" - as if McGuinness had rethought it in Irish terms. But beyond introducing local speech rhythms, his contribution consists of coarsened, sing- song phrasing and misfiring jokes.

The show is worth seeing for the sake of Stephen Rea - one of the few Vanyas to follow Chekhov's advice that he should be played as a dandy. Rea communicates his despair from inside a smart three-piece suit; first drifting round the party as a resident ironist and finally releasing his pent-up rage in a whirlwind of self-cancelling gestures, at once tragic and farcical, up to the moment where he hands himself over to fate and looks away before pulling the trigger. Towards Elena (Kim Thomson) his performance splits into unrelated modes of yearning and derision: had she succumbed to him, she would have had a hard time. Zara Turner, who refracts all the shades of Sonya's desolation, passing joy, and physical exhaustion through a scrubbed, smiling mask, is also excellently cast.

The rest of the show is not so much wrong as blank. Played on Hayden Griffin's noisily echoing platform, it speeds by with none of Gill's accustomed detail. Performances vary from Denys Hawthorne's impenetrably complacent Professor to others who are visibly repeating memorised lines, wondering where to put the emphasis, and usually making the least interesting choice. On this, of all occasions, the Irish might have resisted the easy option of direct confrontation and anger.

Common-sense summary breaks down in the face of Nick Ward's The Present, in which Danny (Ewen Bremner), a teenage back-packer, falls in with a manipulative gallery-owner (Michael) and two all-devouring girls in a variety of Australian locations. Is the mockingly ambiguous Michael (Christopher Simon) a patron or an enemy? Is it by accident or design that the alluring Libby (Susan Vidler) invariably hands Danny over to the ball-breaking Becky (Katrin Cartlidge)? These are the wrong questions. What Ward does in this haunting piece is to evoke the terrors and ecstasies of adolescent adventure: surrounding his protagonist with a world of promise and threat whose rules he does not yet understand. We last see him alone with Libby, who pours sand round his feet and plants a lighted candle in it - creating the spotlit image of a limitless desert on the Bush's tiny stage. A production which confirms the author of The Strangeness of Others as a theatrical poet.

Michael Wynne's The Knocky opens with the reverse image of a tent full of boys, apparently in the wilds, which turns out to be the mean back- garden of a Birkenhead estate. Everything happens in that garden, in spite of drunken neighbours, peeping toms, and next-door's dog (Pavlov). It is Gran's 70th birthday and the family lay on the bunting and piles of grub. Auntie Mary brings her karaoke machine, and Gwen - fearful of going out since she was mugged - posts balloons through the window. They dance and they crack rude jokes; Mary (the unsinkable Felicity Montagu) unthaws the sausage rolls by sitting on them in her leopard-skin bikini.

This would look like a farce about the triumph of northern community spirit over urban desolation, but for the sight of a nocturnal break- in at the start - an episode that hangs like a thunder-cloud over the piece before finally breaking and bringing the laughter to a stop. Wynne's heroine is the mother, Norma (Eileen O'Brien), who is fighting to save the family from sliding into petty crime. Every character relates to that central issue, and each has an independent and engrossing story. In Bryan Stirner's production you start by laughing at the characters and finish by laughing and crying with them. The 22-year-old author knows his business.

Recast for its transfer from the Donmar, Sean Mathias's production of Design for Living does for Noel Coward what Stephen Daldry did for Priestley's An Inspector Calls. It strips away the light-comedy surface, and presents an X-ray of Coward's bi-sexual triangle by running a scenario of unconcealed desire in parallel with the text. It is stylistically masterly in every department, from the company's italicised delivery to Stephen Brimson Lewis's settings, which follow Wilde's prescription for the luxuries without the necessities. Rachel Weisz, Rupert Graves and Marcus D'Amico form the superb new partnership.

`Vanya': Dublin Gate, 0103 531 874 4045, to Sat; then touring. `The Present': Bush, W12, 081-743 3388, to 18 Mar. `The Knocky': Royal Court Upstairs, SW1, 071-730 1745, to Sat. `Design for Living': Gielgud, W1, 071-494 5065.

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