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Review Round-up: Critics commend Chichester's Uncle Vanya

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Uncle Vanya, which revived as the first production in Chichester's 50th anniversary season opened last week (5 April 2012, previews from 30 March), half a century after Laurence Olivier directed Chekhov's classic play as part of Chichester's first season.

The 1897 play, which Chekhov wrote when he was only 36, follows Vanya and his niece Sonya, who have managed an estate on behalf of their relative, Serebryakov, for the last twenty-five years.

Serebryakov, who was married to Vanya's late sister, returns with his beautiful young wife Yelena as he announces the plan to sell the estate upon retiring. Amid a melancholy mood the play offers love, comedic relief and hopefulness weaved within a troubled family story.

Olivier Award winner Roger Allam takes the title role alongside Timothy West, Lara Pulver, Dervla Kirwan and Alexander Hanson. Jeremy Herrin's production plays a five-week run at Chichester's Minerva Theatre until 5 May 2012.

Maxwell Cooter

"Michael Frayn's translation sparkles and captures Chekhov's comic touch brilliantly but as is often the case, the comedy captures some important truths about human emotions. At the heart of the production is Roger Allam's Vanya, less the 'holy innocent' but a man full of resentment and bitterness. What Allam brings out so well is the emotional immaturity of the man ... Allam's emotional Vanya is nicely complemented by Timothy West's Serebryakov … He is well supported by Lara Pulver, as his spirited young wife ... Dervla Kirwan's Sonya is less the meek and mild mouse of many portrayals … Her closing speech, outlining the life of duty for her and Vanya, is less a call for patience and a sense of duty but she almost burns with religious fervour like a revivalist preacher – a reminder that there's some fire burning in her heart. This is an excellent production, commemorating Olivier's opening interpretation for the very first Chichester festival, 50 years ago – it's certainly set a high standard for the rest of the season."

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

"A stellar cast makes Jeremy Herrin's production, on paper, an essential one. And so it proves, even if the emphasis is perhaps tilted a little too far towards the play's humorous side ... Timothy West plays Serebryakov as a self-important invalid, his mouth turned down with disdain. Meanwhile as Yelena, his bored young wife, Lara Pulver is intriguingly complex. While Yelena magnetises male attention, no one takes much interest in Sonya ... Dervla Kirwan makes her achingly sympathetic ... The man Sonya adores is Astrov... Alexander Hanson skillfully conveys both his attractiveness and his limitations. There's intelligent work, too, from Anthony O'Donnell… and Maggie SteedMichael Frayn's lucid translation is full of moments of prickly vitality that evoke the sheer awkwardness of Chekhov's characters. At the same time it does justice to the Russian's portrait of impossible love and squandered life. With Allam at its core, this is an emotionally truthful production, absorbing and affecting."

Michael Billington

"There are times when Jeremy Herrin's production seems like an act of homage: Peter McKintosh's set matches exactly my memories of Sean Kenny's original. But any sense of piety is punctured by Roger Allam's shattering performance in the title role ... In its interweaving of comedy and despair, this is the best Vanya since Michael Redgrave in 1962. But Chekhov is a team game and there is a host of good performances. Alexander Hanson invests the ecological doctor, Astrov, with the ideal touch of sexual vanity and bibulous coarseness. Lara Pulver not only captures Yelena's indolent beauty and intoxication with Astrov, but also the deep self-loathing behind her description of herself as 'a minor character'. And Dervla Kirwan suggests, as all good Sonyas should, the giddy obsession with Astrov that offsets the character's stoical endurance … This production has the benefit of Michael Frayn's translation, a cast that bats all the way down, and an awareness that Chekhov holds the mirror up to our own aching sense of what might have been."

Dervla Kirwan & Roger Allam in Uncle Vanya. Photo credit: Johan Persson
Dominic Cavendish
The Telegraph

"The more you examine the play, provided the translations are good, as they are here, the greater the depth of unbearable feeling it reveals. Chekhov, only 36 when he wrote this, shows us, in TS Eliot's phrase, 'fear in a handful of dust': one day a middle-aged man wakes with the inconsolable thought that he has wasted his life in duty and drudgery… after a few hours you're looking into a plague house of existential torment … If I have to express a personal preference, I'd plump for Roger Allam's fantastically hangdog portrayal in Jeremy Herrin's production in Chichester over Iain Glen's more vituperative, lean-visaged Vanya in Lucy Bailey's revival. While Glen looks more plausibly as if he has toiled in a provincial backwater, seeing out rough weather and rougher humours – and might even have Russian blood pumping through him – Allam has the edge on the character's mocking and self-mocking tendencies."

Libby Purves
The Times

Without gimmicks and using Michael Frayn's sinewy version (worked directly from the Russian), Jeremy Herrin's production is poignant, funny and profound, exploring and honouring regret, disillusion, grief and the traps of self and selflessness ... Roger Allam's Vanya is a marvel, moving between sullen depression and rapier wit, hopelessness and passion ... Alexander Hanson's intelligently ambiguous Astrov is stricken by the cynicism that is a hazard of the medical profession ... I sense Chekhov-deniers looking for the exit. But stay... the mournful, thoughtful forest where Peter McKintosh's slender trees, leaf-fall and moonlight shimmer through long windows, and Fergus O'Hare's soundscape of crickets and distant dogs evoke rural melancholy. Stay, for the moments when high emotion tips into comedy, Astrov storming drunk with his stiff collar flapping, or Dervla Kirwan, unspeakably moving in Sonya's nun-like dresses ... and the impoverished Telegin (Anthony O'Donnell, a marvel) strums the guitar. Stay, for the oblique lesson that it is better to feel and be unhappy than to shrivel into selfishness.

Quentin Letts
Daily Mail

"This Jeremy Herrin production moves at a sedate pace. Michael Frayn’s translation is colloquial, but there are still long stretches of speechifying with not much off-the-ball action … Allam himself has not yet quite nailed Vanya… but then perhaps that was because I saw the show in preview … There is plenty to savour, not least the customary line-fumbling from Timothy West, who plays the crumbling tyrant of the house, Professor Serebryakov … Alexander Hanson is much more of an asset as Astrov … Lara Pulver… catches all the assured cruelty of youthful beauty … The Minerva’s stage is decorated by several birch trees, but they are spindly specimens, more like giraffes’ legs than symbols of emotional investment … Dervla Kirwan selflessly de-glams herself as plain Sonya and Maggie McCarthy makes an adorable cottage loaf of a nanny. Lesser characters are underused by director Herrin … Uncle Vanya is usually worth it for the closing scene, when silence reclaims the house. This production is no exception. All the romantic upheavals are forgotten as Vanya and Sonya reapply themselves to the farm ledgers. The peace is the same as that found at a decent Anglican evensong."

- McKenzie Kramer


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