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Less than Kind (Tour - Oxford)

Sons Without Fathers

By • West End
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Chekhov's unfinished first play is best known as Platonov but director Helena Kaut-Howson reverts to the closer Russian title of "Fatherlessness" in her spiky and colloquial translation, first seen earlier this year at the Belgrade in Coventry.

Most strikingly, she has updated the play to post-Communist Russia. The first shock of the evening is to find Iona McLeish's towering set of silver sheet metal as a background to the chaotic schoolroom where Platonov (Jack Laskey) bursts through an upper-level panel.

This is as radical, and as successful, a take on Chekhov as was Benedict Andrews' production of Three Sisters at the Young Vic last year, and it shares the same quality of melding modern with traditional, so that the characters' boredom is symptomatic of spiritual and material stagnation both then and now.

A full version of Platonov might run to six hours, but Kaut-Howson explains that, in concentrating on the younger characters, she can cut away subplots and highlight generational conflict. Fathers here are most present in their conspicuous absence. But even that pales beside Platonov's wild womanising and drunken self-centredness.

"To go, or not to go..." muses Laskey's mop-haired, frenetic young schoolteacher, contemplating which skirt to chase: Susie Trayling's soignée general's wife, Anna Petrovna; the newly wedded Sophia of the bewitching Marianne Oldham, a former lover he cannot shake off; or the woolly-hatted feminist scientist of Jade Williams.

But then he still loves his wife, Amy McAllister's spaniel-like Sasha, who says she doesn't want to be happy, she wants to be with him, as wife and nursemaid. Platonov is buoyed up in drunken revels with Sasha's brother, Simon Scardifield's wonderfully embittered and dissolute doctor, as well as Sophia's trusting husband (Tom Canton).

The famous incident of the near-suicide under the oncoming train - remember that astonishing coup de théâtre in Michael Frayn's National Theatre version of the play, Wild Honey? - is done no less effectively in Alex Wardle's lighting, which also conjures various hues of night-time, a riotous fireworks display and a dismal, thundery downpour, with equally witty relish.

In all, a first-rate ensemble performance conveys a real sense of Chekhov's uneasy and damaging alliances, this time shadowed by Mark Jax's looming war horse, thief and hired assassin, Osip, a sure sign of how the provincial layabout has become a militaristic thug, a sort of underground Mafioso in the sleepiest backwater.

Laskey, resembling a disastrously unkempt version of David Tennant, roisters through his own mayhem, bug-eyed with self-loathing, like a Byronic lothario fuelled by sex and vodka. He sets the pace, and Kaut-Howson's fine production never lets him down.


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