Uncle Vanya, Vaudeville Theatre, London: Uncle Vanya’s dacha is all too wooden

THEATRE: Uncle Vanya’s dacha is all too wooden

Uncle Vanya. Vaudeville Theatre, London. 2hrs 30mins

Rating: 3 Star Rating

Will there be any let-up for Downton’s poor Lady Edith, first ditched at the aisle and now embroiled with a married man who has no hope of divorcing his lunatic wife?

This week Laura Carmichael, who plays her ladyship, made her West End debut as another thwarted romantic. Sonya in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya is a long-suffering domestic drudge who finds herself competing hopelessly with her glamorous stepmother Yelena (Anna Friel) for the attentions of Sam West’s Dr Astrov.

Worse, on opening night as her character tearfully tried to persuade herself and Vanya that things would be better (though possibly not until death) Carmichael had to contend with a loud voice coming from the stalls saying: ‘Stop it. It’s not working.’

REGRETS, THEY'VE HAD A FEW: Anna Friel as Yelena and Ken Stott as Vanya

REGRETS, THEY’VE HAD A FEW: Anna Friel as Yelena and Ken Stott as Vanya

The outburst came from one of the most distinguished directors of our time, Sir Peter Hall, who had apparently dropped off and woken up, not wholly sure where he was. Carmichael remained admirably unfazed.

That’s live theatre for you.

Actually, Carmichael’s plaintive, plain Sonya is one of the strengths of Lindsay Posner’s exceptionally starry but disappointingly lacklustre revival. Her blushing joy when she dares to say how much she loves Astrov is wretchedly moving.

Few of the other performances have  sufficient intensity either to pierce or amuse, though West cuts a dash as Astrov, dapper and idealistic but emotionally shrivelled. He fancies Yelena but all he truly cares about are trees, as does Friel’s Yelena, resembling a china doll and subtly suggesting she knows she’s no more than a pretty face. Ken Stott captures Vanya’s grumpiness and frustration, but he’s neither as ridiculous nor as sympathetic as he might be.

Christopher Hampton’s witty version has its moments: Vanya calls the professor, his brother-in-law, an ‘educated haddock’.

If you like this, why not try:

Chekhov’s The Seagull, at Southwark Playhouse, London.

But Posner’s very trad, stuffy approach is slowed by lengthy scene changes, when one over-exquisitely aged and distressed setting in the wooden dacha is replaced by another rather similar one.

Uncle Vanya is a story of regrets, resentment and dreams turning to ashes, with all the characters feeling entrenched in their self-defeating ruts. This production is perfectly competent but never makes one see or hear the play afresh.

Comedian Julian Barratt is brilliant as the casually vile boss, Aidan in new comic play NSFW

Comedian Julian Barratt is brilliant as the casually vile boss, Aidan in new comic play NSFW

The title of Lucy Kirkwood’s sparky, darkly funny comedy of bad manners, NSFW, stands for ‘not safe for work’, text-speak for the internet stuff you wouldn’t want to be caught looking at by your boss. Porn, most likely, although that holiday you’re bidding for on eBay might not be cause for immediate promotion.

In fact, the title is the one thing that doesn’t hit the bullseye in an otherwise pointed and well-targeted play about  privacy, power, moral compromise and exploitation. It’s set in the blokey editorial office of a lads’ mag, Doghouse. Charlotte, who got a First in English at Oxford,  prefers to say she’s an estate agent rather than admit she works there.

Janie Dee plays Miranda, the editor of  Electra, a women's glossy and the scene for the second half of NSFW

Janie Dee plays Miranda, the editor of Electra, a women’s glossy and the scene for the second half of NSFW

Julian Barratt is brilliant as her casually vile boss, Aidan, delighted with the latest issue and the new topless pin-up who looks so ‘natural’ – until it turns out that the ‘model’ is only 14 years old and her father is on the warpath. In a brilliantly weighted confrontation, the devious and cynical Aidan attempts to buy off the girl’s decent, unemployed dad, who is disgusted that his daughter has been so publicly exploited.

Each man squirms and wriggles on his own moral axis until both persuade themselves to accept a settlement that leaves them feeling mucky, Aidan because he’s corrupt, the dad because he’s corruptible.

There’s another fine scene in which a thoroughly decent trainee, Sam (a superbly slumped Sacha Dhawan), refuses to take up the magazine’s latest Man Challenge and reveal all about proposing to his long-term girlfriend on an Arctic holiday. Unlike the trustafarian toff Rupert (Henry Lloyd-Hughes, spot on as an ‘Eton mess’).

The second half of the play is set in the airily chic office of Electra, a women’s glossy which, according to Miranda, its editor, is for ‘leaders, dreamers, shoppers. We think female genital mutilation is totally out of order but we love, love, love shoes!’

Sam’s high principles are under siege once again. This time, in order to show that he’s got what it takes to work there, Miranda  (a lethal, luscious Janie Dee) wants him to look at a pile of pictures of beautiful women and put a red ring around their flaws, and then pumps him to describe the imperfections of his own lover. ‘A fungal infection in her toenails, a  sagging somewhere,’ she suggests. When he refuses, she accuses him of not being ‘hungry enough’.

Rupert’s face, meanwhile, has been  frozen rigid by Botox injections, on top of which he’s wearing a skin-tightening mask, part of the magazine’s ‘investigation’ into ‘normal female experience’.

Kirkwood’s writing has bounce and bite and Simon Godwin’s cracking and  well-acted production makes you laugh and wince in equal measure.

NFSW. Royal Court Theatre, London. 1hr 20mins


ALSO PLAYING: Past it? Not spritely Tommy

Scrooge brought to life

Scrooge brought to life

The legend is back. Former teen idol Tommy Steele, now a spritely 75, stars in Scrooge (London Palladium), the musical based on Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. And Tommy, right, is once again performing in the vast theatre where he’s been a headline act more than any other performer in its 100-year history.

His trademark grin is as wide as ever, his teeth blinding in the spotlight. But he’s perfect as this essentially fluffy version of Dickens’s old miser. His  shuffling, bah-humbugging, Christmas-hating persona conceals a chipper side, bursting to get out a song or two.

Leslie Bricusse’s musical (he was librettist, composer and lyricist for the 1970 film starring Albert Finney on which this show is based) sticks closely to the novel. The miser Ebenezer Scrooge undergoes his redemption over the course of a Christmas Eve night after being visited by the ghost of his former partner, Jacob Marley, and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future.

The musical comedy naturally dilutes the story’s surreal, nightmarish quality, but Barry Howard’s ghostly Marley is good fun, swathed in chains  and dipped in flour. In the apparition scenes we get amazing effects by Paul Kieve, the magic consultant on  Harry Potter films, who  turns Scrooge’s bedroom into  a haunted house of horrors.

Sarah Earnshaw provides a mumsy Ghost of Christmas Past. Christmas Future is like a headless giant monk, and James Head as the ghost of Christmas Present is bearded and fruity.

Paul Farnsworth’s dark set evokes a teeming London, at the heart of which is Scrooge’s underpaid clerk Bob Cratchit (Edward Handoll) and his family, including cute Tiny Tim and his gammy leg.

Musically the show exudes a bland pleasantness, but Thank You Very Much and a nice seasonal raspberry, I Hate People, are highlights.

This is really a night out for old fans and their grandchildren, and Steele doesn’t disappoint them.There’s clearly still life in the old trouper yet.

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