First Night: Comedy comes out of the woods

The Forest Lyttelton Theatre London
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The Independent Online
WITH THAT long equine, heavy-lidded face of hers, Frances De la Tour is wonderfully adept at suggesting how a fastidious horse might react in the vicinity of a whiffy drain. It is a talent that comes in very handy in Anthony Page's wonderfully funny, if a touch over-leisurely, production of Alexander Ostrovsky's 1870 comedy The Forest, revived in a pointed, sparky adaptation by the Russian dramatist's 20th-century Anglo-Saxon counterpart, Alan Ayckbourn.

Toting around her cash-box as though it were an extra limb, De la Tour plays Raisa, a tight-fisted fiftysomething widow and wealthy land owner. The action takes place just nine years after the emancipation of the serfs and Raisa's strategy for coping is to be even more tyrannous in those areas of control still left to her.

The actress deliciously signals the skinflint selfishness under the pose of nifty-eyed philanthropy and the quivering disgust under the beamingly gracious social permissiveness. All arch smouldering, Raisa has fallen in love with a dim but dishy young man half her age (David Bark-Jones) whose favour she sets out to buy.

This involves selling strips of her forest to Vosmibratov (boorish Peter Gowen), a serf turned wealthy wood merchant. It also entails disinheriting her two dependants - Niamh Linehan's stroppily miserable Aksyusha and a long-lost nephew. The arrival of the latter - an itinerant ham tragedian with a comic sidekick in tow - turns the place and its values upside down.

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 outdoor woodwork appears to have ben attacked by voracious deathwatch beetles. Elsewhere, the style is of zestfully heightened naturalism.

Michael Williams is a delight as the little put-upon ragamuffin actor, agonised when his partner's grandiloquent gestures of generosity and self-renunciation do them out of the money he so craves. But Michael Feast lets you see genuine kindness under the tragedian's romantic attitudinising. This is a play where, in a reversal of the coarse, received wisdom, thespians stand for sincerity and "real" people for shabby falsity.

The production establishes that The Forest is a substantial drama, not just a dry run for Chekhov's Cherry Orchard.