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Review: Uncle Vanya (Theatr Clwyd)

Tamara Harvey directs this new adaptation of Chekhov's classic

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

This new translation by Peter Gill keeps the period and setting of Chekhov's original, and Tamara Harvey matches it in a production that is exactly what you think of as a 'traditional Chekhov': elegant and steeped in melancholy. There's a samovar, and it's going cold.

But even those who want the classics to look exactly as they're 'meant' to may find this production hard going. The first scenes especially – essentially idle chatter, here delivered with doleful stop-start turn-taking – need a huge fuel injection, for someone (anyone) on stage to really put their foot down. And while Harvey's production finds the contrast between the sleepy indolence of inactive days and the later hysteria of sleep-deprived nights, there are lines – "you're not the only one that's bored, it's catching" – that feel rather too close to the bone.

Gill's translation is supple and highly serviceable; it sounds convincingly of-its-time while still allowing the odd modern idiom to be batted across the stage. There's no particular angle brought out by it, and there isn't in Harvey's direction either, which is absolutely fine, except that it leaves really nowhere for the actors to hide. And some aren't always up to it.

The Professor and his young wife Elena returning to the estate where his daughter Sonya and uncle Vanya have worked tirelessly should be a disruption: they bring with them a sort of dangerous decadence. Martin Turner has a certain urbane hauteur as the Professor, but the interpretation of Elena here is bizarre: Shanaya Rafaat's flutey, mannered delivery is old-fashioned and pretty irritating, but she also presents Elena as – mostly – a silly, naive, simpering thing. It simply doesn't work: we don't buy the now rather sudden switch to seductive manipulator that the script demands. Playing her as a sweet thing snuffs out the power struggles of the play.

And both Elena and the doctor Astrov (Oliver Dimsdale) need to burn up the stage with smouldering charisma – they enchant everyone, especially each other. They might as well be made of wood for all the magnetism between them here. Indeed, it is the downtrodden, plain, overlooked poor souls – Sonya and Vanya – who shine by far the brightest.

Jamie Ballard is a terrific Vanya: quick-witted and brightly sarcastic, with a comic chirpiness to his despairing self-knowledge. His squeaky indignation provides pretty much all of the humour that's to be had, but he also makes a strong case for his sense of injustice. And Rosie Sheehy's vivid and intelligent Sonya is also a riven, racked thing; she conveys the volatility of repressed emotions and their occasional giddy explosions. Her scenes with Astrov are sharply drawn, with Dimsdale effectively suggesting not an accidentally cruel drunk, but a man genuinely fond of Sonya who has a sudden realisation of his impact upon her. But such moments of clarity are too rare.

Lucy Osborne's design stages it in the round, with a great bough of one of Astrov's beloved trees looming overhead within a gilt picture frame – a nod to the Professor's career in fine art, one we're told ultimately amounted to nothing. The frame is empty. The tree invades it. The clash of world views looms overhead, literally. It's a shame the steel rarely flashes on stage.

Uncle Vanya is at Theatr Clwyd until 14 October, and at Sheffield Theatres, 18 October until 4 November.