Harrogate Theatre
Opened 25 April, 1996

And the moral of the story is: if you are selling your production of Chekhov's play on the lines that he (rightly) viewed it as a comedy, do not then stage it as a 3¼-hour plod. The rhythms of David Mamet's style incomplete, repeated phrases, stop-start speeches can be heard in this European première of his version, but it takes some concentration to unearth them; director Andrew Manley wholly underestimates the effort necessary to redeem the play's humour from the pitfalls of the long, slow exhalation as which it is too often produced.

He also digs the occasional pit for himself. It is an appealingly cheeky idea to surround the main playing area with a set resembling an airport departure lounge (complete with a Tannoy announcement of each act) from which the players, like the sisters in their longing for Moscow, never do depart, but an audience increasingly eager for distraction may, as on the opening night, begin to wonder why two of the time-zone clocks above the stage have stopped. They may also start to time each slow revolution of the huge revolve on which the action is played (completing a full cycle every 20 minutes) and to pinpoint the stages in its progress at which it begins to creak maddeningly (two or three times per revolution). Manley and designer Michael Spencer have taken far too literally Irina's line about "The revolving horror of a life without work in it!"

Eldest sister Olga is the most difficult of the three to stamp with a distinct character, and Amanda Prior does not solve this problem. Lisa Shingler's Irina matures nicely from a shallow, youthful siren to a despairing but stoical woman. Jane Montgomery's Masha is almost in a different play the right one, I believe: her self-deprecating dramatisation is the neurotic over-acting of a real person, not a stage performer. It is a pity that she has little to spark off in the person of her beloved Colonel Vershinin Andrew Normington imbues him with a superficial, genteel sentimentality only.

Most of the other actors either play their characters as types or try but fail to get to grips with their individuality. Only Daniel Copeland strikes the right note as Baron von Tusenbach: sincere, at times even impassioned, but crippled by diffidence. However, his and Montgomery's performances are not alone sufficient to reveal properly Mamet's perspective on Chekhov. As regards finding the right blend of comedy and poignancy, Max Stafford-Clark's Out Of Joint production remains the leader in a field of one.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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