Uncle Vanya at Harold Pinter Theatre
This is a West End version of Uncle Vanya, staring names you’ll recognise, in a translation by a playwright you’ll have heard of. That’s basically the review – it does what it says on the tin. Not to be snooty about it, but it’s as safe as houses, meaning your mileage is going to vary depending on what you think of that kind of expensive, tourist-friendly theatre.
Old men and young women. The egos and wasted years of the former, the sacrifices of and constraints on the latter. There’s more to Uncle Vanya than lovesickness, but that’s what jumps out of Conor McPherson’s new version – it has the bittersweet melancholy of an unromantic comedy.
Vanya (Toby Jones) yearns for Yelena (Rosalind Eleazar), the one person who can tease a smile from the miserable old git. Sonya (Aimee Lou Woods) pines for the doctor, Astrov (Richard Armitage), a tender crush that blooms on her face whenever he is present. And Astrov and Yelena are drawn to each other in spite of themselves, he lost, her bored. All are brought into each other’s lives by Ciaran Hinds’s Serebryakov, dominating his family and friends like a Russian Logan Roy.
The elements beyond the affairs of the heart vary in quality. Chekhov’s undoubtedly prescient ideas surrounding the environment and climate somehow come across as half-baked in this production, as if they’ve been pushed to prominence – trees reach in from outside, moss encroaches at the edges – because of their easy relevance.
There’s also the age-old battle between the city and the country, which manifests as elitism on Serebryakov’s side, a perhaps misguided claim to “realness” by Vanya, and a scene of family economics that’s like the downsizing of a business due to mismanagement at the top.
It is the kind of production that’s sold on the names attached, meaning that, really, some knockout performances are required. And there are flashes. Jones is great when his irony and grouchiness morphs into a rageful despair at the realisation of an unhappy life squandered. Hinds can growl with the best of them. Armitage is a charming drunk. And the sense of possibilities snuffed out by practicality is really felt by Woods’s sweet Sonya at the end.
However, none of it is quite enough. Other passages suffer from a lack of chemistry. And there’s maybe a dearth of ambition on behalf of McPherson and director Ian Rickson. Honestly, for plenty of people this will be exactly what they want from a night out at the theatre – there’s plenty to recommend. It’s just hard to feel excited by it.
Photos: Johan Persson
Uncle Vanya is at Harold Pinter Theatre from 14th January until 2nd May 2020. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.