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Review: Uncle Vanya, Harold Pinter Theatre - Richard Armitage 'magnetic', Toby Jones 'endearing', Aimee Lou Wood 'adorable'

Richard Armitage's Astrov is looking at Aimee Lou Wood's Sonya, a wave agony and confusion on his face. It is approaching the culmination of what is a charged, layered and yet very funny Uncle Vanya, a production in which not a character is wasted.

Richard Armitage and Aimee Lou Wood in Uncle Vanya. Photo: Johan Persson

Rarely has Chekhov made me laugh this much and yet equally been heartwarming and sad. 

Conor McPherson's adaptation, as directed by Ian Rickson, elevates the piece into an ensemble tragi-comedy without detracting from the protagonist Vanya played by Toby Jones.

I cared about the characters in a way that I haven't before. I confess, I generally find Chekhov's characters difficult to care about veering far towards the self-pitying for my sympathies.

But this production of Uncle Vanya balances humour and pain, despair and stoicism, laugh out loud moments with those that tug the heartstrings. The woman sat behind me was sobbing all the way through the final scene.

Toby Jones and Richard Armitage in Uncle Vanya. Photo: Johan-Persson

Themes of love and loss and the search for meaning and purpose come to the fore.

It's a play in part about the strength of youth vs the cynicism of age but most of all it is about soldiering on, somehow putting one foot in front of the other despite the hurt and emptiness. It's about the endurance of the human spirit, finding a shred of hope and optimism in the ability to keep going on.

It made me see Uncle Vanya in a new light.

Yes, Vanya's incessant, depressing ramblings can be really annoying but the skill of Toby Jones is to also make him endearing and, at times, keenly fragile.

Aimee Lou Wood and Anna Calder-Marshall in Uncle Vanya. Photo: Johan Persson

I've never felt for Vanya as I did while watching Toby Jones last night.

McPherson's adaptation also gives Astrov more depth and prominence. Richard Armitage makes the heart flutter, he is magnetic, suave and generous but blind to love and blinded by it.

Given the current condition of the planet, his love of trees and interest in the environment give him eco-warrior status; he feels very now.

Aimee Lou Wood is adorable as Sonya. She manages to be youthful and innocent and yet wise beyond her years, her strength and way of quietly placating and leading the grown-ups away from the precipice make her the unsung heroine of the piece.

Rosalind Eleazar in Uncle Vanya. Photo: Johan Persson

Rosalind Eleazar's Yelena is gentle and still, quietly bored and yet radiates which makes the men of the household - apart from husband - insensible to good form and behaviour.

She makes them giddy and intoxicated with love which makes them feel alive albeit for a brief spell.

And in turn, Astrov lights dangerous and delicious fires in Yelena against which she struggles.

Peter Wight, Richard Armitage and Toby Jones in Uncle Vanya. Photo: Johan Persson

When she is gone the hole is gaping, leading to Astrov's complex mix of emotions when he faces Sonya.

I never thought I'd love Chekhov like this. I never thought I'd love Chekhov this much. It's getting ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️.

It is two and a half hours long including an interval and is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 2 May, more details and booking info on the official website.

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From the archive: My review of Richard Armitage in The Crucible.

Video: Sunday theatre question about unexpected audience experiences.

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