Chichester Festival Theatre, W. Sussex
Opened 30 September, 2010

There is probably not a British actor currently working who straddles “straight” and musical theatre with equally unalloyed success in each field as comprehensively as Janie Dee. Here at Chichester alone she has previously been compelling in works by both Gershwin and Chekhov. That latter play, Three Sisters, was presented in Brian Friel’s version, as is Turgenev’s proto-Chekhovian drama now. As with his Chekhov versions, and many of his own plays, Friel excels at the early atmosphere of an easy, unhurried domesticity clearly unprepared for the events about to inundate it. Dee’s great gift of showing us characters’ emotions with radiant clarity but without seeming at all shallow or obvious is put to fine use here by director Jonathan Kent. Natalya Petrovna nurses an infatuation with her son’s young tutor but perceives her teenage ward as a rival for his affections; she herself is doted upon hopelessly by Michel Rakitin whilst her husband Arkady is a good-hearted but unperceptive sort who uses the same word, “astonishing”, in succession to describe Natalya’s beauty and his new winnowing machine.
Michael Feast specialises more in suppression or near-concealment than Dee; in early scenes, clouds cross his face with rapidity, and he begins to make a number of physical gestures of affection before clawing them back. His Achilles’ heel is that he needs to keep a tighter rein on his accent, which becomes broader as he grows agitated. Jonathan Coy is well cast as Arkady; he has few peers in the portrayal of honest but out-of-his-depth agitation. Kenneth Cranham fully inhabits every iota of self-aware mediocrity as family friend Dr Shpigelsky, suggesting self-loathing every time he tells another bad joke. Phoebe Fox makes a noteworthy professional début as Natalya’s ward Vera. Paul Brown’s dacha-garden set design extends over the auditorium, so that we are canopied by the same branches as the characters, and we too seem to feel the leaves beginning to fall at the end as consequences play out without any kind of satisfactory resolution.
One of this season’s Chichester productions, Yes Prime Minister, has already come into the West End, to be joined shortly by another, Love Story. The maths suggests that A Month In The Country is unlikely to join them, but that is certainly not for lack of merit.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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