Review: Harry Lloyd's one man turn in existential Notes From Underground
Review: Has the Young Vic produced a version of The Cherry Orchard I can finally appreciate?

Review: John Hannah is Uncle Vanya, St James Theatre

478x359-v1aHave come to the conclusion that with Chekhov plays I have a preference for the ones with guns in them. It's probably sacrilege to say it but I'm not a massive fan of his work; it's the relentless inevitability. I keep going to productions in the hope that something will click into place. I'm the one trying to change in the relationship, I'll admit.

This was was my first Uncle Vanya, so could it be the missing piece? 

Like all of Chekhov's plays, it seems, the central theme is one of being trapped whether by gender, social status or inaction. The result is a great deal of ennui, prevarication and philosophising on the pointlessness of life. You can start to see why I like the guns.

Vanya (John Hannah) has dedicated his life to working the family farm to support his late sister and her husband Serebryakov (Jack Shepherd) an academic whom he reveres. Serebryakov has returned to the farm with a new young wife Yelena (Rebecca Night). He is pompous and throws the house into turmoil unaware not only of the trouble people go to for him but also of sacrifices they have made. 

One of Uncle Vanya's drawings of Yelena by John Hannah

The local doctor Astrov (Joe Dixon) and Vanya both fall in love with Yelena and vie for her attention not believing she can be happy married to a grumpy and demanding old man. And they are right but she is loyal and resigned. Vanya's niece Sonya (Amanda Hale) helps run the farm but has a thing for Astrov who doesn't seem to notice her in that way.

From the moment one of the characters says 'it is a new day anything could happen', you are waiting. In Vanya family and romantic tensions reach breaking point and someone reaches for a gun.

Anya Reiss has done the adaptation giving it a modern setting and contemporary language. I saw her version of Three Sisters at the Southwark Playhouse earlier this year which didn't wholly work for me, for reasons I explain here.

In contrast to Three Sisters the modern context is used more to determine behaviour rather than explain the characters predicament. Nineteenth century formality is brushed aside. Hannah's Vanya flops about his boredom and infatuation with Yelena leading him to do silly things just to get her attention. He rolls around on the floor like a love-struck teen and draws pictures to pin on her when she isn't looking. He has a cheeky, playfulness that is endearing and fun to watch which makes his anger and despair later in the play all the more potent.

Joe Dixon too plays out a brilliant drunk scene that borders on the farcical. Director Russell Bolam has done much to draw out the humour and it works well. If Chekhov intended us to sit back and laugh at these people for their ridiculousness then that is something I can appreciate. The characters aren't so annoying as to not feel empathy, particular Vanya.

I saw an early preview and it did take a little while to adjust to a comfortable and smooth pace - the second half comes together nicely. I'm still not a convert to Chekhov but this will be filed under the more entertaining, more satisfying productions I've seen. I'll keep trying. Perhaps it will be a gentle slow conversion rather than a revelation?

Uncle Vanya runs at the St James Theatre until 8 November and is two and a half hours including an interval.


Amanda Boxer who plays Marina was in the Pain and the Itch with Andrea Riseborough who was in The Pride in New York with Mr W