Monday, April 22

Uncle Vanya – Old Red Lion

Uncle Vanya is a challenging text for any production company. The audience is thrust immediately into a dysfunctional rural Russian family, whose monotonous and laborious life is disrupted by the arrival of the Professor and his glamorous wife from the city. It is a play which relies on the interaction of complex characters rather than action. Producers Agatha Ezzedine and Clémentine Pinet are therefore to be congratulated for reviving it as a fringe production.

Director Kieran Bourne has made a sterling effort to breathe life into the text for a new generation audience. The production was lively and there was an unexpected amount of humour, but the production was marred by some idiosyncratic performances and poor production choices.

The characters in this play are worn down with weariness and despair. The attempt to liven them up tended only to make them seem angry. Astrov, the doctor, is a particularly interesting character, portrayed by Chekhov as one of the earliest environmentalists with his concern about forests and wildlife. He is described by Sonia as an elegant man. It was therefore difficult to believe Adé Dee Haastrup’s portrayal of him, supposedly a professional man, but dressed shabbily and clumping around the stage in enormous boots. Faye Bennett gave a very well-modulated performance as the daughter Sonia, and Simon Furness as the retainer Telegrin and Sally Faulkner as Nanny added believable local colour as Russian peasantry.

Clearly a lot of thought had gone into the costumes, designed by Heitung Kwok, whose designs were illustrated in the excellent programme. However, I felt that it would have been useful to give the Professor and his Young Wife more elegant and stylish clothing to distinguish them more from the rural inhabitants.

The Red Lion’s performance space is fairly constrained, which is a problem for a play with a reasonable number of cast members. At times getting the cast on and off the curtained entrance at the back of the stage was a bit of a procession. The use of the space was not helped by a table positioned centre stage, which was not used very much during the action, but it constrained the movement options. There was an excessive amount of movement by the cast which meant that at times they were continually circling the table. The stage furnishing was largely wooden furniture appropriate to the time but there were a couple of idiosyncratic modern metal stools with shabby fabric tops, and surely it would have been possible to come up with a better prop for the Samovar then a modern domestic teapot.

The publicity material for the production speculates that the experience of lockdown might make a contemporary audience more empathetic to the situation of the characters in the play. However, the tragedy of lockdown was that able-bodied, enthusiastic people were forced to stay at home by edict, whereas in Chekhov’s world these characters are imprisoned by their own economic and social situation. It is sobering to think that the post-pandemic world with declining living standards and reduced life opportunities might make this piece even more relevant.

Uncle Vanya continues at the Old Red Lion until 14th May,

Reviewer: Paul Ackroyd

Reviewed: 5th May 2022

North West End UK Rating: ★★