A Vanya with a bit of vim

Evening Standard - West End Final Extra - - Going Out - Un­til Jan 12 (020 7722 9301, hamp­steadthe­atre.com)

Un­cle Vanya Hamp­stead, NW3 Henry Hitch­ings

UN­CLE Vanya is a study of en­nui, un­ful­filled de­sires and the mis­ery of ru­ral iso­la­tion. Yet it’s also funny — full of Chekhov’s so­cial satire and dis­dain for hypocrisy. Terry John­son de­scribes his new ver­sion of it, which he di­rects, as “mod­est”, and in some re­spects that’s true. With its samovars and sil­ver birch trees, it’s vis­ually con­ven­tional. But the hu­mour is of­ten un­ex­pect­edly earthy.

Vanya, 47, is stranded on a re­mote coun­try es­tate and has wasted his life. His main mis­take has been slav­ing away over the busi­ness af­fairs of his for­mer brother-in-law, Pro­fes­sor Sere­bri­akov, a pedant whose ex­ten­sive stud­ies have left no dis­cernible mark on the world. Robin Soans’s Pro­fes­sor is as dry and brit­tle as an au­tumn leaf, an in­con­gru­ous match for his young wife Yeliena, who’s played by Abbey Lee with a lan­guor that makes her seem like a vis­i­tor from an­other galaxy.

It’s not un­usual for pro­duc­tions of Un­cle Vanya to be steeped in gloom — and for the ti­tle char­ac­ter to look weary and crum­pled. But Alan Cox’s de­tailed per­for­mance em­pha­sises dif­fer­ent qual­i­ties. Although there are times when he’s wist­ful and owlish, he’s sur­pris­ingly sprightly, and when the drudgery of his ex­is­tence threat­ens to snuff out this vi­tal­ity, he re­tal­i­ates al­most imp­ishly.

In fact, John­son’s choice of words can make Vanya sound lad­dish. He refers to the Pro­fes­sor as “the luck­i­est sod I ever met” and ex­plains that “to pay off the mort­gage, I worked my arse off”. But he’s some­times po­etic, as when he cel­e­brates the ad­van­tages of drunk­en­ness — “an evening’s blind­ness can be a bless­ing”.

He’s not alone in feel­ing that way. Alec New­man’s Astrov, the doc­tor who at­tends the fam­ily, lu­bri­cates his “te­dious, stupid, squalid life” with fre­quent shots of vodka. He needs to, be­cause he is at the heart of Chekhov’s com­plex por­trait of un­re­quited love: se­cretly adored by Vanya’s niece So­nia, he nurses a pri­vate pas­sion for the Pro­fes­sor’s wife.

Yet de­spite sen­si­tive per­for­mances, no­tably from Alice Bai­ley John­son as So­nia, there’s not enough sense of the sheer den­sity of the play’s key re­la­tion­ships. The end­ing re­tains its in­sis­tent melan­choly, but other poignant mo­ments are di­luted.

Lan­gor­ous: Abbey Lee as the Pro­fes­sor’s young wife Yeliena

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