This is fine by me: Chekhov's Uncle Vanya played out in a shoestring-budget hut. Those expecting something grander – the full country estate, white linen and samovar treatment – may be disappointed. Personally, though, I'm a sucker for plywood.
In director Natalie Abrahami's experimental staging of this semi-modernised, free adaptation by Sam Holcroft – entitled Vanya and reducing the characters to four – we find Sonya (Fiona Button) and her eponymous, manic-depressive uncle (Robert Goodale) living in something like a shed-sized packing crate. "Fragile" is stamped on its outer walls.
This slow-revolving shack, crammed on the Gate's tiny stage by designer Tom Scutt, is peculiarly inspired. It's claustrophobic; surprisingly beautiful in soft blue moonlight; and compelling, with panels hinging back so we watch thwarted ardent encounters through doorways and unexpected windows.
Goodale and Button are both excellent at first. His dishevelled Vanya is tetchy and tearful. He stews over his unrequited love for Susie Trayling's demure, pent-up Yelena – the second wife of his sickly brother-in-law (who stays offstage). Fixing the place up with an electric screwdriver, Button's Sonya is more pragmatic but also amusingly socially gawky. She desperately adores the intellectual doctor, Simon Wilson's Astrov, who is fixated on Yelena.
The focus is markedly on the two women. The drawback is that Goodale goes off the boil, while Wilson captures a professional superciliousness in Astrov without enough compensating charisma to make him sexy. He seems arid in this version, lecturing Sonya on ants' behaviour, rather than being passionate about planting forests.
So, Holcroft's adjustments aren't an overall improvement. Fractionally overplaying the comedy, this production ends up shortchanging on poignancy. Nonetheless, this young writer is one to watch. She pulls off some bold innovations, including Astrov getting intimate with Yelena by teaching her how to use a syringe and offering his bicep. Holcroft's humour, at its most charming, and her contemporary ear for conversational floundering ("I think you're brilliant, and I want to be stuck with you for ever!") probably would have made Chekhov smile.
Too True to be Good, regrettably, outstays its welcome in a substandard revival on the London Fringe. One would hope to hail it as a too-long-forgotten gem. George Bernard Shaw's 1932 comedy centres on Miss Mopply, an invalid who escapes her stifling mother by running away with two jewellery thieves. They dream of living in utopian, ex-pat luxury, but are soon discontented by merely being stinking rich.
Director Sarah Norman, alas, hasn't mustered an ensemble with half the comic timing necessary to raise laughs out of Too True's socio-economic satire and vague surrealism. Shaw's wit seems peculiarly feeble from the off, when a "measles microbe" (a limp actor in a spotty green body suit and Harlequin's ruff) whines that Miss Mopply has given him a headache rather than vice versa.
The disillusioned vicar-turned-crook, Alex Blake's slightly satanic Aubrey, does grow more alarming at the close, preaching doom for our civilisation as everyone, post-WWI, spirals into a belief-free abyss. However, en route, this is an unfocused, verbose play that hardly dramatises its stated anxieties in any engaging depth.
Lastly, Fathers Inside is a commendable new play, scripted by Philip Osment for the National Youth Theatre, and inspired by work with young offenders. A bunch of scruffy, jostling NYT actors play a medley of youthful dads in jail, all making slow progress and getting dangerously unruly – riled by one another and by their middle-class dramatherapy teacher who wants them to explore their own and their dads' shortcomings as role models.
The climactic revelation, concerning paedophilia, feels abrupt. But Fathers Inside is insightful about demoralising bullying, and most of Jim Pope's cast, rattling their plastic chairs in the blackouts, play their frustrated characters with great vigour.
'Vanya' (020-7229 0706) to 26 Sep; 'Too True to be Good' (0844 847 1652) to 26 Sep; 'Fathers Inside' (020-7478 0100) to 12 SepReuse content