DEAR UNCLE
Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough
Opened 12 July, 2011
****

Uncle Marcus is the 47-year-old failure who runs the country estate of his vain, hypochondriacal professor brother-in-law whilst nursing a hopeless devotion to “Sir Prof”’s second wife; meanwhile, his teenage niece harbours an equally futile crush on the local doctor, who is nothing special except in such a socially starved milieu… Sound familiar? Perhaps if, for “Marcus”, we substituted “Vanya”…? Exactly.
    
Chekhov is relocated to Irish country houses far more often than to English ones; it is hard to find a plausible analogue of rural isolation in English terms. Alan Ayckbourn makes his choice of the Lake District work well, though, with characters suggesting that even Keswick is a bustling metropolis compared to the nowhere that is fictional Ennerdale. Setting the play in the 1930s is another canny touch: just as the National Theatre’s revival last year of Rattigan’s After The Dance crystallised that moment, pre-World War Two, when the urban upper middle classes began to glimpse their own pointlessness, so Ayckbourn here creates a rural equivalent by transplanting Chekhov’s pre-revolutionary Russians. Russian fatalism morphs into English understatement, particularly in the case of the ineffectual neighbour nicknamed “Waffles” or, here, more properly Julian Touchweston (pronounced “Toughton”)-Smith. Terence Booth’s pomposity as “Sir Prof” also finds an authentically English voice.
    
One respect in which Ayckbourn’s normally sensitive ear lets him down here is that of expletives. Vanya of course grows increasingly blunt through Chekhov’s four acts, and Matthew Cottle’s Marcus is plain-spoken from the first, but surely not even he, in 1935, would be quite as fond of dismissing so much so often as “bollocks”. This is the only major false note in Cottle’s portrayal of a man who, for all his grumbling, is really trying not to look face-on at his wasted life. Likewise Phil Cheadle’s Dr Ash (formerly Astrov), whose passion for amateur forestry has seldom seemed less intellectually heroic, however Sonya may pant in awe at it. Amy Loughton’s Sonya is constantly referred to as doing well at school, and Loughton imbues her with a head-girlish briskness which modulates nicely into oh-gosh infatuation and disintegrates heartbreakingly in her final speech. Ayckbourn does not find specific new insights in Uncle Vanya, but he does confirm the universality of the play and its characters.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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