THEATRE / Helen Mirren, comedy star: I cannot think what has prompted Richard Eyre to install this piece in his main house

FOR THE first major revival of Turgenev's A Month in the Country in 20 years, Triumph Productions appear to have laid on an old-fashioned West End treat. The cast-list reads like a Black Magic chart. No less succulent is the design (by Hayden Griffin, Andy Phillips, and Deirdre Clancy) with its succession of poetically lit birchwood landscapes and dresses of ever- increasing splendour. Here is the serio-comic insight of Chekhov with no ominous echoes from the outside world. No one is going to chop those trees down just yet.

Bill Bryden's production arrives from the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, where I first saw the play at the theatre's launch in 1965. The leads then were Ingrid Bergman and Michael Redgrave, who lent their combined glamour to dignifying the Natalya-Rakitin misalliance as a partnership of suffocatingly well-bred elegance. When Dorothy Tutin and Derek Jacobi took up the roles 10 years later there was less rank-pulling and more emotional candour. But again, whatever you learnt to the characters' discredit - of their apathy, deceit, or manipulative jealousy - was offset by romantic charm.

When Stanislavsky rescued A Month in the Country from a half-century of neglect, he described it as the work of a theatrical lace-maker. Since when the idea has persisted of its delicate psychological fabric, not to be subjected to the wear and tear of normal theatrical use. Five minutes into Bryden's version and you hear Helen Mirren loudly complaining, 'We're making lace' - meaning that she and Rakitin (John Hurt) are getting nowhere and she's bored to death. Sympathy and grand gestures thereupon go up in smoke. Turgenev may have been writing about hot-house creatures, but this show proves that the play itself is no hot- house plant.

Simultaneously it cuts through the ensemble surface to reveal that the action is under the control of a single character. The piece is a star vehicle, and Mirren emerges from it as a whale of a star. The past impression of Natalya Petrovna is of a listless but amiable wife, idling the days away with her cavaliere servente Rakitin until she is swept off her feet by her stepson's young tutor, Belyaev. What Mirren does from the outset is to convert her mood from passive to active. With a husband always busy on the estate, Natalya rules the roost; the rest of the household are scared of her, never knowing when she is going to flare up next. Mirren shows her as a character who wants to combine the pleasure of tyranny with the fulfilment of love and friendship. And, to the amazed laughter of Tuesday's audience, she presents this as a mercilessly comic spectacle.

As she thrusts herself on her dependents - playing sisters with her teenage ward (Anna Livia Ryan) or modest friend to Belyaev (a lovely performance by Joseph Fiennes) - you can see them cringing away. One false word and she will make a lightning return to protocol. Hurt plays Rakitin as an eternal spectator who has been trapped into joining the game; and who swallows his indignities with mounting nausea until he finally spits them out in a paroxysm of self-disgust.

In company and alone Mirren is always acting: trying out noble and romantic gestures like extravagant hats, and then trampling them underfoot. And her note of realist exasperation as yet another heroic posture bites the dust is as hilarious as it is unforgiving.

This approach admittedly works better in the oblique, multi-layered first half of the play than in the second half, where ensemble gives way to debt-settling confrontations. Mirren by this time has nothing more to reveal.

But there remains Gawn Grainger's exquisitely comic portrait of the not-so-complaisant husband, and the unmasking of John Standing's jovially buffoonish doctor as even meaner than the mistress of the estate. A treat, but not of the old-fashioned kind.

A political satire from a co- author of The Front Page - that sounds too good to be true; and so it proves with the National's exhumation of Charles MacArthur's Johnny on a Spot. Except as a bit of light relief from David Hare's The Absence of War (which also opens with a frantic search for a lost party leader amid looming elections), I cannot think what has prompted Richard Eyre to install this feeble piece in his main house complete with a damn-the-expense Romano- Egyptian set by William Dudley, including a lift that goes up and down.

Like The Front Page, which came first, this 1942 comedy shows an unsinkable hero outsmarting an assorted bunch of crooks and cronies before making off with the best girl. There all resemblance ends, as we move from the Chicago newsroom to a Deep Southern gubernatorial parlour, and exchange a sparky reporter for a tricksy campaign manager.

Nicky Allen's aim is to get the rogue alcoholic Governor Upjohn into the Senate. But as heroes have to be sympathetic, this 'Northern Richelieu' is presented as an ambition-free master of ceremonies, and a tale of political corruption is neutered into the vein of crazy American family comedy, featuring lovable characters like the old Health Commissioner (Michael Bryant) who comes into work accompanied by his tame macaw.

Plot is always being derailed by narrative: and instead of generating laughs from the given situation, the play tries to conjure them out of thin air. Wouldn't it be funny if the Governor was found dead in a whorehouse? And if he'd recorded speeches for posthumous transmission? Well, no,

it wouldn't.

James Grout has some droll moments as a windbag judge, improvising a campaign speech with not a clue of what its message should be. Mark Strong offsets Nicky's persistent bullying by playing him in the likeness of a macho Gershwin; and there are startling echoes of Doris Day and Chico Marx from Janie Dee as the campaign's Girl Friday and Howard Ward as a bungling Hispanic bodyguard.

Eyre directs a crack company (with Barry Stanton as the Governor's arch-enemy and Diane Langton as his pneumatically corseted nemesis); but their speed, energy, and high- tension climaxes operate in inverse ratio to theatrical impact.

Two excellent shows from last year are deservedly back in business. Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing, partly recast since its Bush premiere, is at the Donmar. It remains an unfakeably truthful portrait of adolescent self-discovery, showing sensitivity and fun pushing up like wild flowers through the concrete crevices of a Thamesmead estate. This is the most heartening working-class comedy since A Taste of Honey.

In One Hell of a Do Jon Kenny and Pat Shortt celebrate the award for the best amateur pub-wedding band in Ireland with an avalanche of twitches, funny walks, and verbal convulsions suggesting a Tipperary epidemic of Tourette's Syndrome. Then they recruit a happy pair from the house and get down to staging the wedding, from the benedictions to the hangovers, with passing contributions from fork- tongued village gossips and misty-eyed expats. They know their territory, and they know their business. A ball.

'A Month in the Country': Albery, 071-867 1115. 'Johnny on a Spot': Olivier, 071-928 2252. 'Beautiful Thing': Donmar, 071- 867 1150. 'One Hell of a Do': Tricycle, 071-328 1000.

(Photograph omitted)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star