Theatre Uncle Vanya Chichester Festival Theatre

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The Independent Culture
There's a story that one of our greatest actors was once wooed to appear in a production of Uncle Vanya but that he took great offence (and indeed took off) when he realised that it was Astrov he was being invited to play. "That is not the name on the title page," he majestically reminded the director.

A smart career move, this wasn't. The intriguing mixture of visionary idealism and vodka-guzzling, self-disgusted cynicism in the local doctor makes Astrov arguably the more interesting role. As played by the excellent Trevor Eve, he's certainly the most potent presence in Bill Bryden's new Chichester production.

This Astrov, a lined, lank-haired charmer, hits the bottle harder than most, which intensifies the savage comedy of his sporadic ragings against the torpor of provincial existence and the futility of his own life. Eve shows you that inside this coarsened figure, a vestigial, highly sensitive individual is looking on, appalled. Remembering his patient who died under chloroform, Eve has to suppress a dreadful shaking fit rather than the usual shudder. And Bryden gives a new emotional twist to the last act, after the departure of the Professor and his wife. Here, as Sonya and Vanya sit down to their accounts, they refuse to make eye contact with Astrov which distresses and disorients him and makes his irresolute exit a distinctly awkward one. It's only when Frances Barber's Sonya hears the bells on his departing sleigh that this false front of composure cracks and the terrible sobs ensue.

Derek Jacobi's Vanya is a little low on testosterone which tends to make the infatuation with Yelena look a touch theoretical. He's at his best getting tangled up in impotent fury at the nerve of Alec McCowen's deliciously pompous Professor. "I'm driving you all to an early grave," declares this monster of contented self-pity in Mike Poulton's new version of the play. Then, with a little sickly pedantic smile, he amends it to "early grave - naturally". That's one of a number of nice touches in a translation that sometimes comes across as too attention-seeking by half.

Thus, Astrov says of Yelena, "There's a 'To Let' sign hanging on her mind." Actually, with Imogen Stubbs's splendid Yelena, it's more like a "Do Not Disturb" sign. Wittily and not unsympathetically, she shows you a beautiful young woman who really does seem to be worn out with sheer idleness. Only Astrov can stir her to a semblance of activity, as in the lovely self-deceived sequence when, supposedly preparing to speak to him on Sonya's behalf, she gives her hair a good surreptitious primp in the mirror first.

The production is full of powerful little details. In the leave-taking scene, for example, there's an exquisitely comic moment when Yelena, unable to express her pent-up emotions to the people directly concerned, gets them off her chest, so to speak, by wrapping John Normington's surprised Waffles in a sudden effusively warm hug. She's never previously been able to remember this impoverished landowner's name. I've see Vanyas that have moved me more than this did, but I haven't seen one more responsive to its subtle comedy or to the scope for interpretation in the role of Astrov.

n To 27 July. Booking: 01243 781312