Uncle Vanya, Vaudeville Theatre, London


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The Independent Culture

This has certainly been the year of Uncle Vanya. We've already been treated to a couple of high-profile revivals of Chekhov's great tragicomedy of wasted lives – a very funny and mercurial account directed by Lucy Bailey at the Print Room and a more melancholic take from Jeremy Herrin at Chichester. Now, opening within days of each other, two Vanyas hit the West End. 

This week a version from the Moscow-based Vakhtangov company visits the Noel Coward.  First up, though, is Lindsay Posner's powerfully cast rendering of the play at the Vaudeville.

I'm relieved that I saw a performance the day after the press night and its distressing distractions reportedly involving a giant of the English theatre.

The aching poignancy of the final scene (beautifully lit here like an Old Master) where our hero and Laura Carmichael's deeply touching Sonya stoically resume their life of drudgery was allowed to cast an unbroken spell. 

In fact, this fourth act is the high point of a mixed and slightly disappointing affair. There are some fine performances; a sharp, ruefully witty translation by Christopher Hampton; but this is a solidly traditional production that feels (as yet) a bit stiff and unlived-in and fails to impart a sufficiently strong impression of the thwarted passion that is simmering under the listlessness.

Looking as if it has used up one of the forests that the ecologically-minded Dr Astrov is so concerned about, Christopher Oram's heavy, literal design of the timbered country dacha is no help.  It cramps the actors and necessitates lengthy, laborious scene changes that disrupt the flow.

Ken Stott's splendid Vanya has an earthy Scots bark and a twitchy, irascibly hapless sense of his own futility – fiery with shame at the farcical figure he cuts as he casts glances of doggy devotion at Yelena, the beautiful young wife of his fallen idol, and congealing, eventually, into a heart-rending mask of shattered disappointment. 

The production is acute about how self-awareness can more often paralyse than liberate.  Through the porcelain-beauty allure of her Yelena, Anna Friel lets you see that this indolent siren is frustratedly conscious of being “second-rate”, while in a subtly restrained portrayal of Astrov, the excellent Samuel West conveys the clinical clarity with which this doctor registers a confining inabilty to feel for people what he feels for trees.  A good production that is likely to improve as it warms up during the run. 

To 16 Feb; 0844 412 4663