Uncle Vanya, Royal Exchange, Manchester

All work and no play
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The Independent Culture

"A life of idleness cannot be an innocent one," said Dr Astrov, who has not had a day off in 11 years. "Idle" and "indolent" are words hit hard and often in Michael Frayn's translation (which ends, somewhat flatly, with "We shall rest", instead of the usual, terrifying "We must work till we die"). But Astrov's condemnation of the beautiful Yelena Serebryakovna has an ironic sting. Despite Yelena's uselessness, the dedicated doctor will fall in love with her, bitterly wounding her stepdaughter, Sonya, who loves him, and Sonya's uncle, Vanya.

Indeed, the hard-working Astrov, Sonya and Vanya, one might say, are suffering from their own idleness – the neglect of their souls. When Yelena arrives with her elderly killjoy husband, her captive-martyred beauty is both a personification of their unlived lives and a magnet for them.

Unfortunately, in orchestrating these cross-currents of suppressed passion and nervous lassitude, director Greg Hersov also makes indolence his byword. He stresses the elegiac note by bringing on a female fiddler in black clothes and headscarf, who plays like a musician in a restaurant for Russian depressives. The only scene that comes alive is the one in which Sonya and Yelena zigzag round each other, the former proclaiming, "I'm so happy!", the latter that she's miserable.

For the rest, there is no sense here of dangerously thwarted feeling. When Astrov throws himself hungrily on Yelena and she is shocked to find how much she wants him, Robert Glenister mauls Helen Schlesinger's breasts as if they were a pair of sofa cushions, and she responds like a dissatisfied housekeeper – like Kay Wragg's Sonya, she makes far more nervous, superfluous gestures than are needed to express her inner sexuality.

Tom Courtenay's Vanya is particularly lacklustre. He seems to be playing an English don who has realised that he'll never make department head – querulous, embarrassingly self-deprecating, annoyingly droll. One can't believe that this oppressively fatuous man, constantly prancing and twirling about, would be so maddened with lust and rage as to throw himself at Yelena's feet, let alone to pick up a gun and use it.

Robert Jones has put the unawakened Yelena in a trailing, lace-trimmed ivory gown, and in a handsome plum satin one for the night scene of muffled desire. His sets are also boldly symbolic – three well-separated rugs, each with a chair for Yelena, Sonya, Vanya, show us the characters' emotional isolation, but the mountain of documents in the final scene, taller than Vanya and sprawling into hillocks of ribbon-tied scrolls, instead of being a poignant emblem of Vanya's life, looks, in its picturesque exaggeration, like a Christmas window-display.

To 20 October, box office 0161-833 9833

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