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Review: UNCLE VANYA, Old Red Lion Theatre

Super version of the classic play with a 21st century vibe

Review: UNCLE VANYA, Old Red Lion Theatre

"Plays must evolve in order to exist today" - so might we be in for a Vanya set in an occupied Ukrainian village? No, but that's coming I suspect. Director, Kieran Bourne, retains plenty of the original work (enough to please a superfan like me) including the blizzard of patronymics which always lend a Russian feel, but there's a 21st century vibe that comes through strongly - mission accomplished.

Review: UNCLE VANYA, Old Red Lion Theatre We're hemmed into the house deep in the countryside with barely concealed love and hate (well, lust and hate) passing between the characters like a charge of static electricity - not exactly visible, but sparky and dangerous. Vanya is drinking too much, Sonya is working too much, Serebryakov is complaining too much, Waffles is talking too much, Astrov is there too much and Yelena is just too much, full stop,

Chekhov's genius lies in his taking such mundane descriptions and creating unforgettable individuals who manage to make us laugh and cry while unpeeling humanity's weaknesses in an autopsy of the soul. As usual - and no other playwright does this, not even ol' Shakey - you know the play, you know the plot and yet it's entirely new, two and a half hours of revelations. Over 120 years on, a few thousand miles away and a generation older, I am living in Chekhov's world.

The company get the director's vision and deliver skilfully. Jonathan George is the world-weary eponymous anti-hero, funny and tragic in that compelling Vanya style. Clémentine Pinet does some her best work with furrowed forehead observing the absurdity of her situation as the beautiful young wife, trapped every bit as much as Vanya. Adé Dee Haastrup lends Astrov the passion of an Extinction Rebellion activist, played a little younger than he usually is, the yearning he has for Yelena and his cruel indifference to Sonya gaining added poignancy.

Faye Bennett is superb as the poor put-upon Sonya, eyes glistening as she gazes upon Astrov, eyes moistening as her hopes are dashed. She's a victim, but not a helpless one - she does risk more than anyone else but she loses more too. As ever I felt this all but overwhelming desire to break the fourth wall and rescue her.

Not everything works. David Whiting pitches his professor as more buffoonish than egregious which dilutes the horror of his proposal for the estate's future and no closing speech can ever be the same after one has seen the Academy Award-winning Drive My Car. Neither of the two older women (Sally Faulkner's Marina and Anne Dane Farnworth's Mariya) are given quite enough to do and a standard complaint about fringe theatre - that characters are wearing the same clothes over a period of days also holds true, the critical passage of time left a little blurry.

That said, this is a splendid Vanya, an ideal evening for a first-timer (or a twenty-first timer) to worship at the feet of the Russian master.

Uncle Vanya is at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 14 May

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Photos: First Look At English National Operas THE DEAD CITY (DIE TOTE STADT) Photo
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From This Author - Gary Naylor

Gary Naylor is chief London reviewer for BroadwayWorld ( and feels privileged to... (read more about this author)

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