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Uncle Varick

John Byrne
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
(2004)

Brian Cox in Uncle varick. Photo by Douglas McBride
Photo by Douglas McBride

After last autumn's successful revival of John Byrne's The Slab Boys trilogy at the Traverse theatre, the Lyceum's springtime production of Byrne's adapted Uncle Varick (from Chekov's Uncle Vanya) has been a widely anticipated event. But those who attend presentations of Uncle Varick expecting more of The Slab Boys will likely be disappointed.

Uncle Varick may use Scottish dialect, and be set in 1964, but that is where the similarities to The Slab Boys trilogy end - which makes for a refreshing change, though at times the humour Byrne tries to inject is prohibitively regional (and in some cases, one wonders if the audience isn't trying just a little too hard to find something funny about this depressing story).

Chekov's influence is obvious even if one has not studied the Russian writer. Varick, played by Brian Cox, vascillates between impotent rage and bleak despair, with his long-suffering niece Shona (captivatingly played by Madeleine Worrall) providing a sense of pragmatic grounding.

Cox's sense of comic timing brings some needed levity into the opening, easing the transition into melodrama which it seemed the audience, at times (such as when one character tries to murder another with a chainsaw) may not have been quite ready to make. But in the second act, as Varick's mental state disintegrates and the decibel levels rise, the sometimes subtle humour the audience is treated to early on disintegrates in favour of a final screaming match that can barely be understood.

That said, there is a scene early in scene two where Varick storms his way through a rampage fraught with frustration; this is probably the first point in the play where one could become completely involved in what was taking place; it was also one of the first points at which identification and sympathy for the character became automatic, instead of a struggle.

Despite the touch of Scottish flavour offered by the dialogue, it seems impossible to dislocate Uncle Varick from its Russian roots - and, sadly, this does not always work to the piece's advantage. It runs for nearly three hours, including intermission, and because of the nature of the character's interactions, long portions of this time are spent, especially early in the piece, in long explanations of characters' ideals and desires.

Aside from writing the play (his first piece to premiere in Scotland in twenty years, according to the Lyceum's season programme), Byrne is also Uncle Varick's designer; the programme is littered with sketches for character costumes as well as some explaining the origins of his adaptation (in fact, the Lyceum theatre bar itself has some of Byrne's other visual artwork available not only for viewing but also for sale - with price lists both printed in brochures and posted on the wall).

Reviewer: Rachel Lynn Brody