Brian Friel
Sheffield Theatres
Sheffield Crucible Studio

Sean Gallagher as Andrey and Niamh Cusack as Sonya Credit: Mark Douet
Niamh Cusack as Sonya Credit: Mark Douet
Sean Gallagher as Andrey Credit: Mark Douet

Afterplay, first produced in Dublin in 2002, heralds the start of the Brian Friel Season at the Sheffield Crucible, and is the first of three plays, written at different stages in his career, to be performed in the course of a month.

The play is a short two-hander with characters ‘reincarnated’ (programme note) from Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters. But it is now twenty years on, and, despite the momentous events of the early twentieth century in Russia, Sonya and Andrey are affected by change only in so far as it impinges on their modest and parochial lives.

Sonya and Andrey have got to Moscow, but they meet by chance in a dingy café where the cabbage soup is luke-warm, and the proprietress a fierce dragon woman. They are two lonely people, passing through Moscow, on their way back to even lonelier existences in the country areas of Chekhov’s dramas.

Friel brings to the writing an intimate knowledge of the two Chekhov plays, and invents a convincing afterlife for characters like Uncle Vanya, Yeliena, Masha, and even little Bobik, which is gradually revealed in a conversation which strips off layers of pretence to reveal a harsher underlying reality.

More importantly, Friel is true to the nature of the original characters and to the prevailing mood of the earlier plays. Sonya’s emphasis on ‘fortititude’ as a way of dealing with life’s disappointments echoes Irena at the end of Three Sisters. ‘Meanwhile we must go on living…and working’.

There is a moment when it seems that Andrey and Sonya might find consolation in one another. Fortunately Friel pulls back from this. At the end of the play Andrey is enthusiastically penning a letter to Sonya. It is to be expected (or hoped) that he will lose the address or drop the letter in the snow. Happy endings don’t seem right for Chekhov characters.

This is a beautifully judged performance, with sensitive and unobtrusive direction from Roisin McBrinn and an interesting set by Paul Wills where the walls are lined with a variety of wood-framed, clouded mirrors.

As Andrey, Sean Gallagher finds a key to his character in the childlike, rhythmic slapping of his legs to betoken enthusiasm, and a despondent stillness when he realises that he is going to have to admit to the biggest lie of all, the one that has cemented their brief relationship.

Niamh Cusack is a charming Sonya, sensitive and slightly mournful, but also capable of laughter and good humour when the vodka is flowing. She lives with the tragedy of her unfulfilled love, and prefers occasional encounters with the increasingly drunken Astrov to any kind of new beginning. She is one of Chekhov’s philosophers and must submit to her fate, relying on hard work and ‘fortitude’.

The play completely holds the audience’s attention, and the small studio space is an ideal setting for the performance since it brings the actors so close. A delightful opening to the Friel season.

Reviewer: Velda Harris

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