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Uncle Vanya Abbey Lee (Yeliena) and Alan Cox (Vanya). Photograph: Manuel Harlan

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Uncle Vanya
By Anton Chekhov in a new version by Terry Johnson
Hampstead Theatre, Swiss Cottage, London
Until 12th Jan 2019

Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
Published on December 14, 2018

Terry Johnson is a master of comic writing (Dead Funny) and directing (La Cage aux Folles which won him the Tony) so one would have expected his new adaptation of Chekhov's masterpiece to simmer with the latent humour that underlies every scene. It doesn't and is marred by miscasting and direction as languid as an eternal Russian "white night".

The challenge for directors here always is how to make inertia dramatically interesting. Johnson hasn't pulled it off here and audiences are as prone to nodding off as the supporting characters lazing around here, half watching the action.

Chekhov was the master of the intimate truth in his writing. It's not about plot, which basically involves each character being in love with the wrong person who in turn is in smitten with someone else, but it requires great acting to make it sing. After Shakespeare, Vanya is the most produced play. This is probably because, on the surface at least, it appears easy, especially if you get a good colloquial adaptation, but Vanya's misfire more often than not. A recent, notable exception being Robert Icke's heart breaking version at the Almeida.

Here Johnson has cast at the ages specified in the text but the point with these characters is that they all appear older because they were all old before their time, as life expectancy was much shorter.

Having a Sonia (Alice Bailey Johnson) who is more of an ingénue than someone who hard work and resignation to her fate has aged, doesn't help. It's that ageing that makes the character interesting, the self-realisation that she's too homely to ever catch Mr Right.

Likewise Yeliena (youthful Abbey Lee) has the delicacy of a porcelain doll here which doesn't quite add up for a character who is wise beyond her years, having made a settlement with life by being shackled to her Professor husband (Robin Soans), who is a pompous, ailing, old bore. The interactions between the two young women, the forced laughter, too often ring false and Sonia comes across as cold, which is well off the mark.

Central to the play is its rich portrait of an intimate middle aged male friendship between the worn out Vanya and the passionate country doctor Astrov. They are total contrasts but it works. Alan Cox is good on the jaded ennui of Vanya who bemoans that "for 25 years I've been buried alive with my own mother" but you wonder would he really be so unrestrained with his smitten schoolboy act for Yeliena.

Alec Newman revels in the great part of Astrov whose environmentalism was astonishingly prescient for 1899 – "I like trees, I don't eat meat" but his passion for Yeliena doesn't derail him as it should.

The piece is packed with juicy supporting roles, and David Shaw-Parker in particular excels as Telyeghin, tunelessly strumming his guitar at inappropriate times.

Tim Shortall's beautiful, full, design is as classic as you'd expect from English country house Chekhov.



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