Southwark Playhouse, London SE1
Opened 13 July, 2006

It is in a studio production of one of Chekhov's major plays that the writer's ambivalence and complexity of tone most pressingly need to be evoked. In a larger space, you can sometimes get away with playing the quote-Chekhovian-unquote tristesse unmodulated, or even with broadening matters into more straightforward comedy. However, when none of the audience is more than six feet from the traverse stage, a greater lightness of touch is required to keep both registers in interplay. Kate Wild, artistic director of pieces of work theatre company [sic], does not achieve it. She goes for standard Chekhovian and leaves it to the individual actors to try to find a way to square each of their respective circles.

Unsurprisingly, it is the more mature members of the cast Virginia Denham as a lively, sensitive Ranevskaya, Geoffrey Drew as an endearingly sanguine Simeonov-Pischik who succeed most palpably. Elsewhere, players seem to select one aspect (or have it selected for them by Wild) and stick to that. Clive Moore's Lopakhin, the son of a serf but now a successful speculator, has none of the amiable qualities needed to offset the Ranevskys' view of him as a philistine: as Moore triumphally bellows his account of buying the family's beloved orchard at auction, this Lopakhin is an outsider not just to the decayed-gentry householders but also to us. Governess and companion Charlotta is, in Diane Janssen's performance, not so much a deadpan eccentric as a mad sourpuss; Alex McSweeney's uppity manservant Yasha is simply an arrogant oaf, surely too stolid to attract Dunyasha the maid away even from such a dunderhead as the clerk Yepikhodov.

It is in the play's non-romances the Yasha/Dunyasha/Yepikhodov triangle and the non-starters between "eternal student" Trofimov and Ranevskaya's daughter Anya, and between Lopakhin and adopted daughter Varya that the tone most sorely needs to be other than the sustained sigh it is. But Wild ignores it, and further overdoes the "time running out for the old way of life" motif by including ponderous (and uneven) ticking at a number of points. However, the eerie noise which Chekhov did write into the second act sounds on this occasion less like the collapse of old social certainties than a chain-flush toilet failing to perform.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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