Uncle Vanya at the Vaudeville features fine performances but misses the mark
Drifting aimlessly around their run-down farmhouse like ghosts in self-imposed purgatory, the characters in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya endlessly proclaim their boredom, their misery, their frustration with the tedium of life and the pain of growing old. Described as his “most truthful tragicomedy”, this play pokes a little fun at the human condition, at the tendency towards wallowing in discontent and all-consuming self-pity, as it descends into comical melodrama.
Translated by Christopher Hampton and directed by Lindsay Posner, the production at the Vaudeville Theatre boasts a star-studded cast, with Ken Stott outshining everyone with his grouchy, sarcastic, brilliantly blustering, anguished and weary Vanya, who lusts after his former brother-in-law’s beguiling young wife, played with poise but perhaps a little too much consideration by Anna Friel. Stott is eminently watchable, bringing a good mix of vibrancy, humour, pathos and darkness to the stage and, in the second act, provokes the only moment of genuine emotion with a transfixing performance of real despair and panic.
Despite that moment, unfortunately the production as a whole fails to engage. It’s polished enough, and the performances are strong enough: Samuel West warms into the disillusioned, idealistic and self-absorbed doctor; Laura Carmichael is suitably simpering as Vanya’s bland niece Sonya (an annoying character to watch as a woman in 2012); and Paul Freeman is a marvellously cantankerous and pompous Professor, but there’s just something missing, something that diminishes how affected we feel. Perhaps it is the over-emphasis placed on the drag of country life which actually loses our attention instead of focusing us on the point. This pacing problem is certainly not helped by two of the most laborious set changes in the history of set changes; long enough not only to allow the audience to perform the inevitable throat-clearing but to hold full-on conversations, breaking the rhythm and the theatrical spell.
Ultimately a sturdy if not sparkling production – go for the performance by Stott and for Chekhov’s pointed reminder to take life by the horns.
Uncle Vanya is at the Vaudeville Theatre until 16th February 2013. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.