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Review: Wild Honey (Hampstead Theatre)

Michael Frayn's take on Chekhov's first play opens at Hampstead directed by Jonathan Kent and the late Howard Davies

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Revolution, when it comes, necessitates evolution – or so it seems in this rare revival of Michael Frayn's take on Chekhov's first play. When it opened at the National Theatre in 1984, led by Ian McKellen, Wild Honey was deemed the first really playable version of the text – the unfinished, untitled original being a five-hour long sprawl.

Chekhov's debut crops up quite often these days. Indeed, the last three years have brought as many Platonovs as they have Vanyas – the last also being directed by Jonathan Kent, who steps in here for the late Howard Davies. If it's fashionable, I suspect that's because the play seems off-beat and imperfect. Its wonks make it more truthful and less squarely Chekhovian.

That, as it happens, was Frayn's approach too. Rather than reconciling the play's contradictions into something classically Chekhovian, he embraces its mood-swings and zigzags from tragedy to farce. More than anything else, Frayn finds the games going on beneath the surface – a kiss chase through the woods or a round of hide and seek.

Davies and Kent home in on that: Platonov is a play about the need to be seen and, indeed, the dangers of that. He himself is a brilliant man, "the second Byron," who washed up instead as a small-town schoolteacher with a drinking problem. Every woman for miles, four in total, sets out on his trail, besotted with this shambling sweetheart, but, as Geoffrey Streatfeild makes clear, Platonov is a man who doesn't want to be found. Time and again, he disappears into drink. "Where are you?" is the recurring refrain.

And for good reason. Squint, and several characters blend into the background; their dirty grey outfits perfect camouflage against the silver birches and lichen-lined houses of Rob Howells' design. Others – the landowning, leisure-seeking sorts – ping out in crisp black and white. These people are Peppered Moths – the first living proof of natural selection. The species changed as soot changed its habitat during the industrial revolution – and so it is here. Written 40 years before the Russian revolution, Chekhov's play predicts a peasants revolt. To be too brilliant or too wealthy is to stand out and so die.

Yet standing out is still key. Everyone, here, is trying to catch somebody's eye – in most cases Platonov's – while, at the same time, giving their own admirer the slip. At times, the play resembles a wild Benny Hill chase; the key to which is being visible enough to be seen, but invisible enough to pass unnoticed.

This is an insightful, attuned reading, but it is nonetheless over-schematic; so thick with symbolism that it stifles the action. Despite characterful support all round, only Streatfeild's Platonov really falls into focus – a soft, shuffling soul and a man of mixed messages. He brushes women off like he's coming onto them and goes off into hiding as a cry for help. Rather than going to ground, he gives himself away.

Wild Honey runs at the Hampstead Theatre until 21 January.