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Review: Uncle Vanya, at Hampstead Theatre

Set in a household of simmering jealousies, new version of 120-year-old Chekhov play takes a fresh look at familiar material and makes it feel contemporary

13 December, 2018 — By Howard Loxton

Alan Cox and Alice Bailey Johnson in Uncle Vanya. Photo: Manuel Harlan

AT 47, Vanya, already greying, sees his life as wasted and already over. For years, with his niece Sonia, he’s run his late sister’s country estate, supporting the family and sending most of the income to his brother-in-law, Sonia’s professor father who remarried a beautiful young wife.

Sonia, hard-working and considerate, has long been in love with local doctor Astrov, who’s blind to her feelings. With the country-hating professor and his wife here on a protracted visit he’s fallen for the lovely Yeliena, who equally captivates Vanya.

It is a household of simmering jealousies, frustrations and boredom beautifully captured by dramatist Chekhov. Director Terry Johnson, who has also written this new version of the 120-year-old play, keeps the Russian setting but uses a modern vernacular that makes it very accessible.

Tim Shortall’s elegant setting of panelled rooms surrounded by birch forest with opening birdsong may suggest an elegiac nostalgia but this production brings out Chekhov’s humour. Alan Cox’s exasperated Vanya may describe them all as eccentrics but this excellent cast expose feelings that make them understandable, even Kika Markham’s proto-feminist Grandma in awe of the professor’s academia.

Alec Newman’s Astrov, would-be protector of threatened forest and the local economy, carefully gauges the drunkenness that reveals his own fears and self-awareness. His intimacy with June Watson’s nanny (they share a local accent) subtly defines a whole society. When Alice Bailey Johnson’s Sonia looks in a mirror and compares herself with Abbey Lee’s Yeliena, you get a sense of how having such a self-centred father has shaped her.

Though even attempted murder and suicide can become darkly comic, the humour that gives this production its buoyancy is underscored by a compassion for lives that echo the world’s disappointments. It’s a version that takes a fresh look at familiar material and makes it feel contemporary.

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