Review: Uncle Vanya, St James Theatre

“This is starting to get offensive”

Proving herself once, twice, three times a lady Chekhov adapter, Anya Reiss now finds herself in the slightly odd position where (I think) she’s had more of her adaptations produced than her original writing – it’s certainly one way of casting off the mantle of ‘saviour of new writing’ with which she has often been blessed/cursed. I didn’t catch her well-received take on Spring Awakening for Headlong earlier this year but it is reimagining the work of Chekhov that has really fired her mojo – recent versions of The Seagull and Three Sisters are now followed by an equally modern Uncle Vanya for the St James Theatre.

And whilst I’d love to say these adaptation are going from strength to strength, for me it is much more a case of diminishing returns. Moving The Seagull to a contemporary Isle of Man chimed well but Three Sisters suffered a little (well, a lot) in the shift to a modern British embassy and so too does Uncle Vanya here, relocated to a Lincolnshire farm in the modern day. The sense of crippling stagnation, of an entire way of life on the precipice is present but none of the deep emotion or eternal tragedy of the characters that should elevate its concerns to the universal.

Russell Bolam’s production is partly at fault here – a baffling array of regional accents (of varying quality) pepper the farm which given that this group are bound either by family or the land just doesn’t work, what earthly reason does Amanda Boxer’s Marina have for being from Somerset (at least I think she was…) aside from er, COMEDYRURALACCENT!!! Throw in an opening half that is overly static, some ‘hilarious’ drunk acting and a raft of modern references to iPads, farmers markets and diazepam and it all just sits on the stage rather than genuinely living.

It is only Amanda Hale who manages to transcend the material as a deeply empathetic Sonya, lifting those who are in scenes with her too so that Joe Dixon’s Astrov finds depth amongst the drink as she urges him to sober up and Rebecca Night’s Jelena finally sparks into the life that must have attracted Jack Shepherd’s irascible Serebryakov. John Hannah is underplayed to the point of perfunctory though, and it was hard not to leave disappointed by the whole enterprise. Can we have a new one next please?

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £3.50
Booking until 8th November

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