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Uncle Vanya at The Hope Theatre | Review

Uncle VanyaWell, I can’t fault this production for attention to detail. From my vantage point, I couldn’t help noticing that the green paint on a wall even covered an electrical socket, whose plugholes and switches had been taped over prior to the paint being applied. This production of Uncle Vanya: Scenes From Country Life in Four Acts, to give it its full title, rattles the said four acts in under ninety minutes, which aside from ensuring the entire Hope Theatre audience got home at a reasonable hour, also resulted in a more streamlined and focused narrative. The costumes, set and props are all well suited to the period, and a stained-glass window hangs from the ceiling at an angle, but this is (I think) because of the seating configuration in the theatre, with the audience sat on three sides. One can easily imagine there being a window on the ‘other’ side of the front room.

The production is rather too successful at creating a palpably oppressive atmosphere. At one point I realised I didn’t particularly like any of the characters. Professor Serebryakov (Rory McCallum) and his second wife Yelena (Esme Mahoney) return to a country estate, run by the Vanya of the play’s title (Adrian Wheeler), the brother of the professor’s first (late) wife. This, then, is a classic story in more ways than one – a Chekhov play, yes, and also one that explores the strained relations between in-laws. The whole thing brought to mind a Les Dawson one-liner: “I haven’t spoken to my mother-in-law for two years. We haven’t quarrelled.

Marina (Gilly Daniels), or ‘Nanny’ as the others call her, has surface level complaints that, when one reads between the lines, are rather more revelatory than the words in the script reveal in a literal sense. She talks about how mealtimes are disrupted because of the professor’s sleeping patterns, but his nocturnality is a relatively minor problem compared to other issues that arise. In this production, she comes across as the ‘help’, so it was interesting to discover later that the character is actually a direct relation of Vanya.

Anyway, the music that accompanies the opening couple of minutes reminded me of something that only readers of a certain age will even recall: the ‘hold music’ that used to accompany an interruption in transmission on television, when an apology would be made by a continuity announcer for the technical difficulties being encountered, and an on-screen message would appear reiterating the same point. Otherwise, the sound effects were good at portraying the kind of noises that add authenticity to the production, such as the chirping of crickets during a scene at night.

Astrov (DK Ugonna), a doctor who was asked by Yelena to attend the professor, keeps turning up, even though the professor is anything but bedbound. It’s Yelena he’s attracted to. But so is Vanya, and the young lady is therefore at the centre of a love quadrangle. Except it isn’t quite a love quadrangle, because not everyone’s love is reciprocated. There’s also Sonya (Cassandra Hodges), the professor’s daughter from his first marriage, who remains at home as per the conventions of the time because she remains unattached, so to speak.

For the most part, it’s a subtle production, until a meeting is called, and the professor announces his (not yet confirmed) future plans, which go down like a lead balloon with Vanya in particular, for reasons he himself explains in some detail whilst going ballistic. It takes a while for the show to come alive, but when it finally does, it’s worth the wait. There was one notable moment of comic relief, and one or two wouldn’t have gone amiss in a deep and brooding play. Then again, it’s unmistakably and undeniably Chekhov, and so one shouldn’t exactly expect it to be a walk in the park. A challenging but nonetheless interesting evening.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Uncle Vanya’s learned brother-in-law returns to the family estate with his new young wife, Yelena. This is enough to break the fragile surface tension, the thin layer of delusion, which thus far has contained the more toxic realities of family life. Drink flows, and soon father, daughter, uncle and all become embroiled in a passionate crescendo of domestic unrest – opening wounds, breaking hearts and putting the future of the whole estate in peril.

Creatives: Producer Michael Greenwood for Tales Retold
Director James Stone
Assistant Director Amy Daniels
Lighting Designer Chris McDonnell
Stage Manager Jessica Binfield

Cast includes:
Adrian Wheeler (Red Joan, The Mentalists), Cassandra Hodges (Call the Midwife, All is True), DK Ugonna (Take on Me, Othello), Esme Mahoney (The Seagull, Massive Dad), Gilly Daniels (Michael Mcintyre’s Big Show, The House of Bernarda Alba) and Rory McCallum (Entertaining Mr Sloane, Doctors).

Listings Information
Uncle Vanya
The Hope Theatre
207 Upper Street
London N1 1RL
http://www.thehopetheatre.com/

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