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)

Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
Crime watch: Cara Delevingne and Daniel Brühl in ‘The Face of an Angel’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
music Malik left the Asian leg of the band's world tour after being signed off with stress last week
News
Author J.K. Rowling attends photocall ahead of her reading from 'The Casual Vacancy' at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on September 27, 2012 in London, England.
peopleNot the first time the author has defended Dumbledore's sexuality
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
photography
News
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
people
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
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.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss