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Uncle Vanya (Susan Elkin reviews)

Uncle Vanya
Anton Chekhov in a new version by Venetia Twigg Theatrical Niche. Produced by THEATRICAL NICHE LTD
performance date: 02 Dec 2019
venue: Old Red Lion Theatre, 418 St John Street, London EC1V 4NJ


Venetia Twigg (who also plays Yelena) gives us Uncle Vanya pared down for 2019. With a 75 interval-less runtime, there’s a lot of emphasis on conservation issues, especially bees and bee-keeping, and this production invites us to think very carefully about all-too-topical medical health issues.

Five actors work on Valentina Turtur’s cellular set, inspired by a bee hive. Vanya (Matthew Houlihan) a widower, lives on a country farm with his niece Sonya (Foxey Hardman) who inherited the property from her late mother, Vanya’s sister. They are being visited by Sonya’s father, a university professor (Jeremy Drakes) and his younger wife Yelena. The local doctor, Mikhail Astoff, (David Tudor) calls most days.

All three men are in love with Yelena and Sonya is in love with Mikhail. None of it is requited or practical and Yelena eventually goes back to the city with her rather tedious husband. Chekhov and Twigg are interested in the effect this has on Vanya, still only 39, who sees himself with no future. Houlihan develops his character from a man who is irritated, frustrated and feeling put upon to one who is seriously deranged and disturbed to the point of being suicidal. It’s a strong performance.

Hardman’s Sonya is initially girlish and amiable but eventually finds powerful assertiveness as she gradually realises that she’s probably the only person who can save Vanya from himself.

There’s pleasing work too from David Tudor who opens the piece with a little lecture about bees and remains urbane for most of the time except when he’s alone with Yelena or towards the end of the play when we see his real anguish and passion.

The Old Red Lion – configured with a triangular playing space within a square studio theatre – is an ideal venue for the intimacy of this small scale Uncle Vanya. Intelligently directed by Nadia Papachronopolou, every word is audible but most of the acting is televisually natural.

First published by Sardines:
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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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