Uncle Vanya, Old Vic, Bristol

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The Independent Culture

The best news is that the Bristol Old Vic is up and running. The artistic director, Tom Morris, will announce his plans on Friday and the stage of the great Georgian theatre has been extended beyond the proscenium, making more sense of the exquisite architecture.

Chekhov's masterpiece – every production is a revelation of some kind – is a joint venture of the Vic and Andrew Hilton's Tobacco Factory, long vaunted for spare and simple Shakespeare. Well, this Vanya is spare and simple too: bare boards, bentwood chairs, free-standing French windows, a blue cyclorama. But its simplicity comes at a price. There's no real heft to the emotions, as in the moment when Simon Armstrong's creased and crumpled Vanya enters with his bunch of flowers for Yelena and finds her in the arms of the doctor. The botched shooting of the professor ("missed again") is farcical all right, but the absurdity outweighs any sense of tragic crisis.

The show seems devoid of music of any kind; the long drawing in of the closing scene – with the departures and the "getting down to work" of Vanya and Daisy Douglas's pure-hearted Sonya – is too briskly paced. A thunderstorm breaks immediately Vanya says one's coming. Astrov (Paul Currier) delivers his environmentalist manifesto with the passion of a talking clock. And in a play where everyone is virtually dead with exhaustion, the cast come and go with the briskness of commuters on a suburban railway platform.

Ian Barritt's self-absorbed professor (dreaming his own snippets of banal art criticism in a scene change; nice touch) could be no-one's idea of a lady-killer. David Plimmer's guitar-playing Telegin is scrubbed and amenable, not pock-marked (as he says he is) and ugly. And Alys Thomas's Yelena confuses sensual languor with drab wafting.

Armstrong takes trouble to sound rasping, but he doesn't have the soul of the character. It's all expressed on automatic, like an overgrown schoolboy being naughty at teatime. The poor man should be convulsed in bitterness and a lifetime of failure.

The translation is Stephen Mulrine's and there are nice cameos from Jacqueline Tong as the nurse and Avril Elgar as the mother-in-law, walled off in a membrane of deafness and indifference.

To 21 November (0117 987 7877; www.bristoldoldvic.org.uk)