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Review: Uncle Vanya (Hampstead Theatre)

Terry Johnson's adaptation of Chekhov's masterpiece opens at Hampstead Theatre

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Alan Cox (Vanya) and Alice Bailey Johnson (Sonia) in Uncle Vanya
© Manuel Harlan

This is a play that feels as if it is always with us, though in fact it is two years since London saw a major production of Chekhov's melancholy masterpiece, a study – among other things – of the havoc unrequited love can wreak on unfulfilled lives.

Terry Johnson has both adapted and directed this version at Hampstead, providing a translation that elegantly and amusingly adds a lot of punch and purpose. "I am up to my neck in a rank pond of regret," Vanya remarks, at one point, summing up his sense of having wasted his life, tending the country estate of his niece Sonya while her father, Serebriakov, writes academic nonsense – "I feel sorry for the paper he writes on" – and swans around with his much younger and very beautiful wife Yeliena.

It is Yeliena's indolent presence – "my entire life could occur without me in it" – that provides the disruptive force in the dacha and Johnson's words vividly capture her destabilising impact.

The problem is that his production is both decorative – all pale green walls and pretty birch trees courtesy of designer Tim Shortall, with balalaika music between the acts – and too decorous. Like Yeliena herself it glides along the surface of things, without ever quite exploring the deep, dark emotions it is stirring up. The play casts its spell because it is a wonderful study of so many kinds of loss and regret, but it never quite tears the heart as it can.

The performances share this tendency to charm rather than probe. With his great, sad eyes, Alan Cox is an unusually dandified Vanya, with a kind of baffled wonder at his state that turns into quiet desperation; Alec Newman's Astrov is a pugnacious idealist, without quite ever convincing us of his passion and his misery. As the languorous Yeliena, Abbey Lee has the entrancing appearance that perfectly matches Chekhov's requirements. Her youth also casts an interesting slant on her character's seductive powers; there's a great moment when she sprawls on the sofa in utter boredom. But Yeliena is a hard part with which to make a stage debut and her performance doesn't always hit the mark.

Alice Bailey Johnson catches all Sonia's longing for Astrov and the bitterness of the realisation that he will never return her feelings. The scene where she looks in a mirror in sad resignation is beautifully done. But quite the best moments come around the edges; from June Watson's magnificently resigned nurse Marina, for once a person rather than a caricature, and Robin Soans' superbly self-obsessed Serebriakov, oblivious to all around him.