Friday, 8 March 2013

Theatre review: Longing

As well as his better-known work for the theatre, Anton Chekhov was also a prolific writer of short stories, and it's two of these that William Boyd uses to fashion a new Chekhov play, Longing. Successful lawyer Kolia (Iain Glen) has been invited back to a small town where he spent much of his childhood, by two old friends, Tania (Natasha Little) and Varia (Tamsin Greig.) But the women don't just want to catch up - Tania's alcoholic husband Sergei (Alan Cox) has frittered away her fortune on doomed business deals, and mortgaged the estate to the hilt. Everything is due to be repossessed within days, and Tania hopes that Kolia can help come up with a solution. But he has distractions of his own as Tania's teenage sister Natasha (Eve Ponsonby) has fallen for the much older man.

Boyd also includes one of the proto-Bolshevik characters who often appear in Chekhov, as Misail (William Postlethwaite,) son of the town architect, has left his upper-class background behind to work as a house painter, extolling the virtues of manual labour. But his principles are compromised somewhat by his loveless engagement to Kleopatra, daughter of the nouveau-riche Dolzikhov (John Sessions.)

Lizzie Clachan's impressive set puts the old summer house that holds an emotional connection to the characters on stage, as well as real grass for the woodland surroundings (so hayfever-sufferers beware.) The play that's performed on this realistic set looks and feels like Chekhov, although it's not quite satisfying - perhaps it's because Longing's themes have pretty much been covered in the writer's existing work, so this addition to the canon is interesting enough, but doesn't feel necessary. (Or maybe I was just grumpy from the headache that comes from real grass in an enclosed space. Why would you use original-recipe turf if there's an "astro" version available? Why would you use original-recipe anything if there's an "astro" version available?)

Director Nina Raine has pulled together a strong production though, with some moving performances, none more so than Greig whose Varia encapsulates the play's title. In love with Kolia when she was younger, his inability to express his reciprocal feelings has led her to refocus her life on helping others, as a doctor in a neighbouring town. At his return it's clear both still feel the same way but he's as unlikely as ever to acknowledge it, and Greig's performance exudes heartbreaking regret even as she advises Kolia to marry Natasha.

Cox is also memorable as the drunken Sergei, waving away his financial worries by breaking into French, and Catrin Stewart (Doctor Who's inter-species lesbian lady's maid) as the spoilt Kleopatra is also a scene-stealer. It's a shame though that these two are the only characters given any of the humour that often infuses Chekhov.

The show's whole run sold out, I think before it had even opened, so there's obviously an appetite for more Chekhov, especially if it comes with a "name" cast. To call Longing a pastiche of Chekhov would be to do it a disservice. But it's not the real deal, nor does it really find something new to make with the familiar themes.

Longing by William Boyd, based on short stories by Anton Chekhov, is booking until the 6th of April at Hampstead Theatre (returns only.)

Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes including interval.

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