Theatre: Root and branch upheaval

THE FOREST LYTTLETON THEATRE RNT, LONDON
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WITH THAT long, equine face of hers, Frances de la Tour is wonderfully adept at suggesting how a fastidious horse might react in the vicinity of a particularly noisome drain. It's a talent that comes in mighty handy in Anthony Page's very funny - if a touch too leisurely - production of Alexander Ostrovsky's 1870 comedy The Forest. The piece is revived now in a robust and sparky adaptation by the Russian dramatist's 20th-century Anglo-Saxon counterpart, Alan Ayckbourn.

Toting around her cashbox as though it were an extra limb, Ms de la Tour plays Raisa, a tight-fisted fiftysomething widow and wealthy landowner. The action takes place just nine years after the emancipation of the serfs and Raisa's strategy for coping with this social cataclysm is to be even more tyrannical. De la Tour deliciously signals the skinflint selfishness under the widow's pose of misty-eyed philanthropy and the queasy distaste beneath her beamingly gracious social permissiveness. All arch smouldering and ludicrous girlish flutter, Raisa has fallen in love with a young man half her age (David Bark-Jones), whose favour she sets out to buy.

This involves selling off strips of her forest to Vosmibratov (brawny, boorish Peter Gowen), a serf turned rich wood merchant and the kind of man she would not have allowed into the house a decade earlier. It also entails effectively disinheriting her two dependants: Niamh Linehan's stroppily miserable Aksyusha, a live-in niece whom she treats as a tiresome charity case, and Gennadiy, a long-lost nephew. The arrival of the latter - itinerant ham tragedian with a diminutive comic sidekick in tow - turns the place and its values upside-down, causing the disruption you'd get if you let Don Quixote and Sancho Panza loose in a play by Chekhov.

The Forest gave rise to a landmark Expressionist staging by Meyerhold in 1924. Page's production limits itself to one symbolic touch: betokening the terminal decline of the country gentry, the woodwork in the outdoor scenes appears to have been attacked by voracious termites. Elsewhere, the style is one of zestfully heightened naturalism. In a performance that recalls the old northern comic, Sandy "Can you hear me, mother?" Powell, Michael Williams is a delight as the little put-upon ragamuffin actor, hilariously excruciated when his partner's repeated grandiloquent gestures of generosity do them out of the wads of money he so desperately craves. But Michael Feast's Gennadiy lets you see that there is genuine kindness under the tragedian's high-flown romantic attitude. This is a rare play where thespians stand for sincerity and "real" people, epitomised by de la Tour's Raisa, for shabby falsity.

There's a lovely sequence where Gennadiy hurls denunciations from King Lear at Vosmibratov, who has just pompously savoured swindling Raisa out of several thousand roubles. It's typical of the play's wit that these Lear-like posturings don't exactly shame the ex-serf but sting him into a sort of theatrical competitiveness. He proceeds to do "the honourable thing" in an equally histrionic way.

An attractive drama, and much more than just a dry run for Chekhov's Cherry Orchard.

A version of this review appeared in the later editions of yesterday's paper

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