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Uncle Vanya

Anton Chekhov, translated by Stephen Mulrine
English Touring Theatre
Malvern Theatres
(2008)

Uncle Vanya

In a moment unscripted by Chekhov but one entirely in the spirit of his writing, 'Vanya' is currently laid up after falling awkwardly while firing a pistol. Nicholas Le Prevost, who was playing the eponymous Vanya, broke his leg and he has had to withdraw in favour of Mark Estance, formerly a workman/Yefim.

What makes the incident so apt, albeit extremely unfortunate, is that Vanya is so distraught at his inability to hit his target, Serebryakov, despite firing twice at point blank range. The fact that in the attempt he also falls over and injures himself would have tickled the author. In fact, Peter Hall, who was in the audience when it happened, thought it was a brilliant piece of improvisation.

Prevost has drawn critical acclaim in the part and one can easily imagine how well the role suited his somewhat lugubrious presence. Alas, his absence is to the considerable detriment of this production which fails to really nail either the comedy or the tragedy of the play. Estance, to be fair, turns in a creditable performance and the moment when he re-appears on stage with a bouquet of roses for his adored Yelena, only to find her in the arms of Astrov, is touching.

But while Vanya undoubtedly cuts a somewhat ridiculous figure, he should also move us and Estance fails to effectively negotiate the changes in pitch. As Pinter remarked of his own writing, something can be "funny up to a point and then it isn't". The skill required to turn in a moment from comedy to pathos is considerable. Loo Brealey also shows her inexperience. While she captures Sonya's jejeune, breathless bustle she has a tendency to lapse into shrillness.

By far the best performance is from Ronald Pickup as the monstrously selfish and utterly uncomprehending Serebryakov, for the greater good of whose career, Vanya's and Sonya's happiness has been sacrificed. Neil Pearson, (TV's Drop the Dead Donkey) who is fast becoming a company regular, is a likeable Astrov, while Michelle Dockery, acclaimed in Hall's production of Pygmalion, seems curiously unwilling to impose herself in the role of Yelena.

The staging, as one would expect of Hall, is admirably clear and fleet of foot. The set and costumes by Alison Chitty are attractive and to the purpose and are well-supported by lighting designer Peter Mumford and sound designer Gregory Clarke. If I confess myself disappointed, that is only too Chekhovian.

Philip Fisher reviewed this production at the Rose of Kingston, as did Sheila Connor at Guildford, Cecily Boys at York and Peter Lathan at Newcastle

The tour ends at Malvern

Reviewer: Pete Wood