Review: Longing, Hampstead Theatre

“Is there no room for love in your philosophy of life?”

One of the reasons Fawlty Towers remains so highly respected is because it managed that rare feat of going out on a high after making just 12 episodes. And though the reasons for the relatively limited dramatic output of Anton Chekhov may be more to do with his untimely demise, the ethos seems to me to remain similar – the handful of plays that he left behind should be celebrated as such. But he was also a prolific writer of short stories and spotting an opportunity to enrich the canon, novelist William Boyd has fashioned a new play – Longing – from two of them, directed by Nina Raine (her of the astounding Tribes) at the Hampstead Theatre.   

Boyd has used one of Chekhov’s longest stories My Life and “taken its core and impacted it on” one of his most obscure A Visit to Friends and what results is a story of distinctly Chekhovian flavour but one calls to mind numerous of his other plays rather equalling them in their depth and richness. Kolia is invited the summer estate of some old friends but what he thinks will be a relaxing break turns into something much more complex as long-buried emotions come up against current dramas in typically tragicomic fashion. And there’s much to recognise: an ageing woman laments the summer estate she is no longer in possession of, another dares to dream of the love she has sacrificed for a working life, somebody longs to get back to Moscow…these are all highly familiar themes and though they are skilfully woven together by Boyd, there is rarely a sense of dramatic impetus compelling this particular story to be told or ultimately justifying the exercise at large.

Where this production really does succeed though is in its sumptuous quality across the cast and creative. Lizzie Clachan’s set of the summer house set in its shaded glade is truly remarkable – forming an impressive backdrop for the open space in front where most of the action takes place, allowing couples to wander off into the woods to the side to share confidences and in a noteworthy scene in the second half, letting us see a party full of drinking and dancing through the windows from which various characters try to escape to make the emotional connections they dream of. It looks glorious but more importantly, it serves the production beautifully.

And there’s a cast to match. Tamsin Greig is heartbreaking as the resignedly pragmatic Varia, hopeful that love might finally find her (she does much to suggest that the bona fide Chekhovian grandes dames that must surely be in her acting future will be epic); Iain Glen’s Kolia simmers as the buttoned-up visitor who can’t quite pluck up the courage to connect with her; and Natasha Little and Alan Cox bicker excellently as the former estate owners with an uncertain future. And as the new proprietors, John Sessions has a marvellously oleaginous quality as the arriviste Dolzikhov which is countered well by his more moralistic son Misail – the palely unruly William Postlethwaite – desperately unhappy at the match he cannot escape with Catrin Stewart’s grotesque Kleopatra.

As may be apparent, the mass of interconnecting stories is not inconsiderable and feels suitably epic in scope and Nina Raine has pulled an excellent set of performances from her cast (all the more so considering this was a first preview). But having created this world that is so intrinsically linked to Chekhovian expectation, Boyd doesn’t give it enough space to fully breathe and so it feels as if we’re barely scratching the surface of many of the characters. It is a high standard indeed to which Longing aspires.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes (with interval)
Playtext cost: £5
Booking until 6th April

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