Thursday, 12 June 2014

Theatre review: Fathers and Sons

Concluding the Spring season at the Donmar Warehouse is a revival of Fathers and Sons, Brian Friel's adaptation of the Turgenev novel. Two outspoken St Petersburg students spend their summer returning to the rural homes they grew up in: First the recently-graduated Arkady (Joshua James) goes to his father's country estate, bringing with him his flatmate Bazarov (Seth Numrich.) Things aren't quite as Arkady remembered them - his father Nikolai (Anthony Calf) has a new baby with one of the servants, Fenichka (Caoilfhionn Dunne,) and on confirming that his son's happy for him prepares to marry her. Meanwhile Nikolai's lack of flair for managing his farm has led him to ask for advice from a neighbour, the wealthy widow Anna (Elaine Cassidy.) She and her sister Katya (Phoebe Sparrow) will catch the eye of the two young men, with very different results.

Later the same summer it's time to visit Bazarov's much humbler origins, at the home of his father Vassily (Karl Johnson,) an ageing doctor.

Like a Chekhov play with a bit more going on, Fathers and Sons is full of unspoken emotions and frustrations. Bazarov is a nihilist and vocal about it, ironically showing the most fervent passion when talking about not believing in anything. Despite his protestations - when they're out of earshot - about how much he loves his parents, he's unable to show them any direct affection, and Johnson's heartbreak over this lack of connection provides some powerful moments. Numrich, who has said he wants to do more work in London, gives his character quiet conviction that blinds him to what others are feeling, and has one of the most natural English accents I've ever heard from an American actor1. Although growing his hair to a suitably revolutionary length leads to him fiddling with it constantly, to the extent that Ian was in a bit of a rage with him by the interval.

A quieter but more intense presence is James as Arkady, the true focal point of the play, whose own revolutionary zeal is more about agreeing with the friend he's besotted with than any real enthusiasm for nihilist ideas. If anything, Lyndsey Turner's production holds back a bit too much from hinting at this homoerotic tension, but by the end James, impressive as ever, has made the underlying issues of the play very clear.

"You have to give me the name of your hairdresser."

There's great support from Calf's utterly, endearingly useless Nikolai, and Tim McMullan is reliably foppish as his pretentious brother. And there's comic relief from the servants, Jack McMullen as Piotr, who's dyed his hair multicoloured to keep up with city fashions, and develops temporary deafness any time Nikolai wants him to do any actual work; and Siobhan McSweeney as Dunyasha, whose crush on Bazarov she's not exactly great at concealing. Ambitious set designs have been a particular Donmar trademark since Josie Rourke took over, and so it is with Rob Howell's country garden which acquires a roof to turn into Vassily's smaller home. Although as usual sightlines seem to have been an afterthought - it looked to me as if, with the roof down, those sitting on the far right or left at the back of the Circle would have spent those scenes looking at planks and nothing else. So try to avoid those seats if you go; if you do you'll see quite an interesting play with a lot of performances standing out as memorable.

Fathers and Sons by Brian Friel, based on the novel by Ivan Turgenev, is booking until the 26th of July at the Donmar Warehouse.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including interval.

1a young American actor who can do a good English accent, doing a lot of theatre in London? Kyle Soller gonna be having words about Numrich muscling in on his territory.

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