THEATRE / The hostess with the mostest: Paul Taylor welcomes the return to the stage of Helen Mirren in Bill Bryden's finely acted West End production of Turgenev's A Month in the Country

A playgoer coming blind to A Month in the Country might think that he'd chanced on a piece by some highly gifted disciple of Chekhov.

True, it's by a writer who hasn't managed to work one or two dated items of dramaturgy (such as the soliloquy) out of his system and who tends to avoid the orchestrated group scene in favour of a mischievous daisy-chain of duologues. But the setting, atmosphere and personnel are distinctly Chekhovian: the oppressive leisure of a country house, presided over by a bored, capricious hostess; the tragi-farcical mood that is heightened by the squirmings of the conversational sub-text and by talk that trails off into inconsequence.

Even the way the drama is structured - on the pattern of a disruptive sojourn followed by a casualty-strewn departure - is reminiscent of Uncle Vanya, while, in terms of his catalytic effect on the proceedings, Belyaev, the bashful 20- year-old Russian tutor who turns the heads of both the lady of the household and her 17-year-old ward, is like an innocent and quite unwitting version of Platonov.

In fact, Turgenev's stage masterpiece pre-dates by nearly half a century The Seagull, which is the first play of Chekhov's that you could call thoroughly Chekhovian. It's an irony of history that it took the success of the later writer's work, and the Stanislavskian ensemble techniques deriving from it, to create the kind of taste that could recognise the excellences of A Month in the Country. You might even argue that Chekhov continues to repay the debt to this day.

Writing in 1926, the critic James Agate pooh-poohed the idea that there was anything mystical about ensemble playing in the Russian classics. 'All that is necessary,' he declared, 'is the absence of a star actor and the refusal of the company, whenever the star opens his mouth, to suspend animation like a golf crowd watching Hagen drive off the last tee with a four for the championship.'

The West End has tended to operate on the reverse principle, avoiding the one-man- show syndrome by giving us a Three Sisters stuffed with Redgraves and other assorted luminaries; an Uncle Vanya with Gambon, Pryce, Staunton and Scacchi; and a Heartbreak House with so many big names over the title, it nearly didn't make it on to the poster. So Chekhov could be said to have established not just the taste but the commercial viability that allows this cast-to-the-hilt Month in the Country to take up residence now at the Albery.

It also marks the return to the stage of Helen Mirren, whose brilliant Natalya Petrovna is the source of both the evening's greatest rewards and one's slight reservations. Caught between youth and middle age, vacillating between her platonic house-guest lover and the young tutor, Natalya is a married woman of mercurial mood swings. With some hilarious timing and vertiginous, split-second shifts of tone, Mirren manages to make turning on a sixpence look as easy as swinging a cat at Wembley. 'God give them happiness]' she cries with radiant altruism, having convinced herself momentarily that she is glad for her ward and the youth she, too, fancies. Then, with breathtaking abruptness, her tone hardens as she accelerates into a gabbled aria of scheming self-interest.

There are times, though, when these transitions seem too mechanical. For example, she reacts to the farewell from the house-guest lover not with the stunned obliviousness of a woman who is grieving for someone else but with a willed- looking perfunctoriness that is pointedly deflating. Mirren's Natalya can be moving in her distress, but she gives the impression of someone constantly putting on a performance. This infects even those disgusted references to the unhappy, father-dominated childhood which has left her with the sense of never having had a youth.

The darkest notes in Bill Bryden's finely acted production are in fact sounded by Anna Livia Ryan as the ward, Vera. Initially a whinnying adolescent, by the end she has half-shifted into grievously disappointed adulthood.

John Hurt's face looks not so much lived-in as positively infested these days, but if he seems a little old for the part, he brings a splendid sardonic ruefulness to the role of Rakitin, the cosmopolitan aesthete lover who is put in the shade by Joseph Fiennes' beguilingly bashful tutor. Hurt has a habit of intoning lines like 'What vivacity' with the puncturing deadpan detachment of one for whom disillusion and a sense of being superfluous have started to become a way of life. The only time he gets worked up is during his impassioned, puce-faced lecture to Belyaev about the torrid hatred that is hidden beneath the most fiery love. Even here, the clenched fist of conviction becomes the flapped hand that ultimately dismisses his own pronouncements.

The cast ably brings a whole cross-section of society alive, from Bolshintsov, the rich, dull old neighbour whom Trevor Ray makes seem (to mix similes) as solid as two short planks to John Standing's casually unprincipled physician. His wooing of Polly Adams, which veers off the rails into a comic catalogue of faults and into an expression of bitter social resentment, is one of the best things in the piece. The production's palette of moods could be larger and the implicit radicalism could be highlighted. But with Mirren and her colleagues on such good form, it's likely that A Month in the Country will enjoy several months in the West End.

Booking: 071-867 1115

(Photograph omitted)

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