Review Roundup: UNCLE VANYA Starring Toby Jones at the Harold Pinter Theatre

By: Jan. 24, 2020
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Uncle Vanya

Uncle Vanya opened last night in the West End at the Harold Pinter Theatre! Toby Jones (The Birthday Party, Don't Forget the Driver, Detectorists) stars in the title role of Vanya alongside Richard Armitage (The Crucible, Berlin Station, The Hobbit) as Astrov. Rosalind Eleazar (The Personal History of David Copperfield, Deep Water, The Starry Messenger) plays Yelena, with Aimee Lou Wood (Sex Education, Downstate) as Sonya, the Emmy Award-winning Anna Calder-Marshall (LOVE, Evening at the Talk House, Male of the Species) as Nana, the Olivier and Tony-award nominated Dearbhla Molloy (The Ferryman, Dancing at Lughnasa, Juno and the Paycock) as Grandmaman, Peter Wight (The Birthday Party, Hamlet, The Red Lion) as Telegin and Olivier Award-nominated Ciarán Hinds (Translations, Game of Thrones, Girl from the North Country) as Professor Serebryakov.

In the heat of summer, Sonya (Aimee Lou Wood) and her Uncle Vanya (Toby Jones) while away their days on a crumbling estate deep in the countryside, visited occasionally only by the local doctor Astrov (Richard Armitage).

However, when Sonya's father Professor Serebryakov (Ciarán Hinds) suddenly returns with his restless, alluring, new wife Yelena (Rosalind Eleazar) declaring his intention to sell the house, the polite facades crumble and long repressed feelings start to emerge with devastating consequences.

Let's see what the critics have been saying...

Gary Naylor, BroadwayWorld: Toby Jones is at the heart of it as Vanya, a sour, bitter, tragic version of PG Wodehouse's Lord Emsworth, stuck not so much in his country house as in a mind that is filled with regrets. Jones uses all of his charisma to create a sense of empathy with the audience - in less skilful hands, we might turn against his solipsistic victimhood and consider the peasants outside, whose lot was somewhat less comfortable. But we don't - Vanya does deserve more, his bad choices bad, but the price paid so, so high. This is a true ensemble piece (even we're involved, as the fourth wall is broken continually) and you can't wait for another character to pipe up with an aperçu or two.

Dominic Cavendish, The Telegraph: I've seen angrier Vanyas (Roger Allam), more melancholy Vanyas (Simon Russell Beale). I'm not sure I've seen any better catch the tragicomic mixture of fury and futility when - re-roused to ire at talk of the estate being sold-off - Jones's frantically unhappy nobody runs amok with a gun, then subsides into stunned apathy.

Tom Birchenough, The Arts Desk: It's a superlative collective performance from the cast - many of us will be lucky if we see a better one in our lifetimes - one that, though it's rich in talent well known from elsewhere (the small screen, especially), plays here in newly minted unison. Somehow "ensemble" seems less appropriate a term for Uncle Vanya than for some of the other Chekhov plays, given that what resounds most powerfully here are the series of scenes between just two actors. But Rickson achieves an ensemble effect in a different way, by creating the kind of hush in the theatre that keeps the audience hanging on every utterance, every gesture. It's moderated only by Stephen Warbeck's score, redolent cello and piano, particularly haunting when it plays over the interludes between acts, and the characters move together silently, suggesting a higher harmony even while all we see on stage is strife. Sad roses, autumn roses, indeed.

Nick Curtis, The Evening Standard: The alchemy of this retooled Vanya, combining a top-notch creative team with serious actors who are currently having A Moment, works brilliantly. I'd call it blockbuster Chekhov if it weren't so subtle and sad. Toby Jones is in his comic prime in the title role, a man faced with the waste of his life. Hobbit heart-throb Richard Armitage is a forceful if one-dimensional study of self-destructive idealism as his friend and rival, Astrov.

Demetrios Matheou, The Hollywood Reporter: Arguably the most difficult aspect of presenting Chekhov is finding the tonal balance in his tragicomedy. The characters' navel-gazing self-pity can be so demanding that sometimes you have to resist the urge to jump on stage and give them a good slap. There is no such issue in Conor McPherson's brilliant, buoyantly accessible adaptation of Uncle Vanya, directed with customary verve by Ian Rickson, which recognizes and enriches the play's essential duality - the funnier this is, the sadder and more painful it becomes. Moreover, McPherson's lithe, light, modern, bittersweet text is in the hands of an excellent ensemble who collectively elicit our indulgence, led by a barnstorming comic performance from Toby Jones. Suddenly the ennui and personal disappointments of fin de siècle landowners and their hangers-on have the ring of familiarity.

Arifa Akbar, The Guardian: Ian Rickson's exquisite production is full of energy despite the play's prevailing ennui. It does not radically reinvent or revolutionise Chekov's 19th-century story. It returns us to the great, mournful spirit of Chekhov's tale about unrequited love, ageing and disappointment in middle-age, while giving it a sleeker, modern beat. McPherson's script has a stripped, vivid simplicity which quickens the pace of the drama, and despite its contemporary language - Vanya swears and uses such terms as "wanging on" - it does not grate or take away from the melancholic poetry.

Alexandra Pollard, The Independent: Most of the men in Uncle Vanya have wasted their potential, and most of the women are chafing at the bit for more satisfying lives. "You had the good fortune to be born a man with agency," says Vanya's mother Mariya (Dearbhla Molloy). "What I wouldn't have done with that agency." Every single player here evokes their character's ennui terrifically - but it is so dimly lit, the staging so staid, the pace so unhurried, that the ennui is catching.

Natasha Tripney, The Stage: Ian Rickson's production is polished to a high shine. The emotional arcs, the richness of the performances, the lucidity of the adaptation, the sumptuous design: everything about it gleams. There are no rough edges. It's almost too controlled, too clean. Its most charged moments are some of its smaller ones. When Richard Armitage's slightly underpowered Astrov, having finally grasped the depth of Sonya's feeling for him, pecks her on the forehead as one might a niece, it's devastating. The last scenes are also deeply moving. While everyone returns to their routines, Sonya glows bright as a candle, the last light in a lost world.

Mark Shenton, So the new West End production has a lot to live up to; and if it is not quite as radical as Robert Icke's Almeida re-working, which I dubbed "a crushingly brilliant new take on an all-too-familiar play", this more conventionally staged version has a masterly sense of pace and place, with director Ian Rickson orchestrating a mostly stellar cast in a beautifully nuanced account of the play that fully embraces its tender, funny, sad and crushingly comic notes in turn.

Andrzej Lukowski, TimeOut London: 'Vanya' is the most malleable of Chekhov's plays in terms of potential for lols, and this version finds a sweet spot between companionable chuckles and icy despair. Toby Jones is terrific in a vivid, vanity-free take on the title role. At first his sadsack estate administrator comes across as a faintly unbearable pub-bore type, and yet he won me over: he's decent, witty and has a painfully, often humorously clear view of himself - well aware that he's far less attractive than his lifelong friend Doctor Astrov.

Connor Campbell, The Upcoming: It is the kind of production that's sold on the names attached, meaning that, really, some knockout performances are required. And there are flashes. Jones is great when his irony and grouchiness morphs into a rageful despair at the realisation of an unhappy life squandered. Hinds can growl with the best of them. Armitage is a charming drunk. And the sense of possibilities snuffed out by practicality is really felt by Woods's sweet Sonya at the end. a?? However, none of it is quite enough. Other passages suffer from a lack of chemistry. And there's maybe a dearth of ambition on behalf of McPherson and director Ian Rickson. Honestly, for plenty of people this will be exactly what they want from a night out at the theatre - there's plenty to recommend. It's just hard to feel excited by it.

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