Fortune's Fool, theatre review: 'Horribly funny and deeply touching'

4.00

Old Vic, London

Iain Glen seems to be cornering the market in the Russian repertory. He was last seen on the boards as a moulting heart-breaker, allergic to commitment, in Longing, William Boyd's conflation of two Chekhov stories. Before that he was a brilliantly volatile Vanya for Lucy Bailey. Now he teams up with Bailey again for this splendid revival of Fortune's Fool (1848) – also known as The Parasite – an early tragicomedy by Turgenev. 

Mike Poulton's canny adaptation was first staged at Chichester in 1996 starring Alan Bates who later took it to Broadway where it garnered a Tony nomination for Best Play. But this is the London premiere and I am delighted to report that that Bailey's production, which is horribly funny and deeply touching, marks an impressive return to form by the Old Vic after the sad miscalculation of the recent Much Ado About Nothing

Glen is superb here as Kuzovkin, one of those impoverished gentlemanly hangers-on who seem to have been as staple a feature of the Russian country estate as silver birches and samovars. Having outlived the master who used to treat him as court jester, he simply stayed put – sleeping on the top shelf of the linen cupboard. 

But now Olga Petrovna (Lucy Briggs-Owen), the daughter of the household, is about to return after seven years with a polished St Petersburg husband (Alexander Vlahos) who is eager to take command.  Will her remembered fondness for him save our hero from eviction?

The future looks promising until Kuzovkin meets his nemesis in the fat, effete shape of Tropatchov, a sadistic fop (sublimely well-portrayed by Richard McCabe) who delights in humiliating people he considers socially inferior. At a lunch party on the first day, this smirking bully gets Kuzovnik drunk by forcing him to quaff endless toasts and he eggs him on to tell the ludicrously convoluted story of how his family cheated him of his wealth. It's a merciless ritual that escalates chillingly here and ends with Kuzovkin,in a dunce's crown and driven beyond endurance, retaliating with a shocking revelation.  The rest of the play deals with the repercussions of that outburst.

Filled with strong echoes of Gogol and with premonitions of Chekhov, Fortune's Fool also shifts shift from the grotesque comedy of the first act to the heart-tugging melodrama of the second.

In Bailey's beautifully considered production, though, there isn't a jolting switch of tone and this   brought home to me how the preoccupation that persists throughout is the rather Dickensian question of what constitutes a real gentleman. Glen shows you a shabby ineffectual dreamer who struggles to keep his head held high but whose sensitivity of spirit has not coarsened. 

He even manages, in a lovely absurd touch at the start, to descend from the linen cupboard with a certain dignity. In their wrenching scenes together, Lucy Briggs-Owen's Olga piercingly conveys her recognition of his worth, unlike her spineless spouse whose offer of hush money results in one of the most ambiguous and painful happy endings on record.

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