Susan Elkin | 21 May 2021 23:22pm
Michael Pennington is, as always, a joy to watch and listen to. One of at least three fine one man shows he has toured and revived many times, Anton Chekhov dates from 1984. It’s a glorious monologue in which he depicts the aging Chekhov, reflecting on his life.
Of course it’s autobiographical. We learn that Chekhov trained as a doctor but wrote as a sideline. Even when he’d made enough money to buy an estate in the Crimea he still practised medicine – the only doctor available for “his peasants”. He talks of his boyhood and his grandfather who was a serf. There’s a horrifying, chilling account of witnessing a flogging when he spent some time in a Siberian prison camp observing and writing a report. And he’s witty about people and life – and his own plays which he claims not to like much. He wrote 600 stories too.
What I really like about Pennington in this role is the mellifluous crispness of his voice and the accomplished way – dressed as a shambling old man – he manages mood changes including the occasional youthful grin at some memory. Often such flashes relate to women Chekhov has known – in every sense. It’s odd though that Pennington has a book in his hand which he uses as a prop as he leads us to imagine that Chekhov is reading his own work. In fact this is the play script which he is constantly referring to. It doesn’t matter too much but at times we could do with a bit more eye contact. I find it hard to believe that this fine actor has always done Anton Chekhov like this and wonder whether, now 78, he isn’t finding it quite as easy to remember lines as he once did. Not that it detracted from my enjoyment. It’s still a masterclass in measured, intelligent acting.
This production is part of the Footprints Festival with which Jermyn Street Theatre has feistily re-opened. Hats off to Tom Littler and Penny Horner for the way they manage their reduced socially distanced audience with cheerful, rueful good humour. The serving of interval drinks to seats is almost as entertaining as the show.