It’s a bafflement. Not the updating of a hundred-year-old play to the contemporary scene, nor its production in the irregular swank of the St. James Theatre. No, the befuddling thing is the pair of Crocs onstage. It’s hard enough to fathom the Chekhovian superfluous man at the best of times – add the mystery of why he would choose to wear no-one’s favourite amphibious footwear and things get really complicated.
Thankfully they’re part of Janet Bird’s impeccably selected design. Costumes are severely co-ordinated: matching belts, shoes and ties, funky shirts and hipster socks – all more catwalk chic than rustic eccentric. The Honey Monster Heisenberg and Lilt T-shirts are cute, but don’t in particular suggest misanthropes marooned in the sticks. Well, it’s clearly a hip neighbourhood. Bird’s set is a sheer face of corrugated iron whose clever tilt in Act II doesn’t quite make up for its cumbersome upstaging in Act I. The point may well be to de-romanticise the farm and its inhabitants; if so, it succeeds. But we have to spend a few hours here too – a little more whiff of the Dales would be nice.
Anya Reiss received some well-deserved accolades for her previous Russian outings and now she returns for the hat-trick with director Russell Bolam. But commandeering another author’s pen is more than mere ghost-writing; here a whole shelf of Samuel French playwrights seem to make an appearance. There are echoes of smartly tart Coward (“It’s a nice day” “A nice day for hanging yourself”), oblique, archaic Ibsen (“You all have these demons of destruction inside”), and dodderingly domestic Ayckbourn (“I have gout” “You promised me you’d stop going online”). Occasionally the lines are inspired, and surely this is pure Reiss, such as the rather brilliant “We’re all spongers in the eyes of god.”
Whatever your response to the scattershot writing, it is evidently the sort of text in which the actors either bring their own genius to it, or don’t. Firmly in the former camp is Joe Dixon’s Astrov, who electrifies with the simplest of lines: his “Thundahhhh woke me!” is a rumbling delight. His manic scene of drunken attic antics is richly mischievous, and of all the cast he seems to be having a genuinely good time up on stage. Amanda Hale’s Sonya embraces the obscurity her character craves, but it is somehow played too well – we lose track of her in the throng of the action. Her portrayal is poignant, an etiolated wraith feasting on the perceived joys of others. Yet even the lovesick, especially the lovesick, tremble with submerged energy, and we are made to wait a tad too long for it, in a brandy-swilling reconciliation with Rebecca Night’s beguiling yet vacuous Yelena.
Accents snag from time to time and the character of the brittle country farm suffers for it. John Hannah swaggers loutishly as the caged Vanya, his voice like a shotgun, reloading and re-firing, chick-chick-chack – pleasing, yet somehow lacking variation in its assault. There is a defused quality to his Vanya that doesn’t quite hold the story together. Hannah is denied the big moments to draw us into his tragedy (think Kenneth Branagh’s sublime rain of tears in Ivanov a few years back).
This Uncle Vanya feels as if someone took a jigsaw of the original, snipped its interlocking parts and placed it roughly back together. The vague shape and colour remains, but there are little holes peppering throughout, reducing its impact. Isolation is a key factor in Chekhov, a sense that the characters are trapped, forever stalling on their way to the train, as Mamet so acerbically put it, with some yarn of a childhood kitten. To update this work blunts its urgency; escape and reinvention is easier in the modern world. Reiss has enough savvy and spark – and certainly enough time – to tell her own tale on these themes. Here’s hoping her next play is an original.