Unusually light and comic Chekhov

Uncle Vanya: Anton Chekhov, Arts Theatre Cambridge (until Saturday)

Ivan Howlett

Uncle Vanya: Anton Chekhov, Arts Theatre Cambridge February 16

Sir Peter Hall's Uncle Vanya, now on a short national tour, has an unusually light and comic touch. We're in the world of the samovar with the futile landed classes. We're at the country estate where everything decays, where the wrong people are married to or love the wrong people, where the peasants live in squalor, and where perpetual boredom reigns in a Russia going down the pan.

Yet there's so much life here, so many gems of sudden impetus and inspiration, played out for us by a wonderfully strong cast, that you can't take your eye off things for a moment.

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In the central roles are two fine performances. Nicholas Le Prevost is Vanya, the screwed up, suffering failure of a man, dominated by his devotion to the old Professor who owns the estate and whom he now loathes. He has a hopeless love for the professor's 27 year old and very beautiful wife (the magnetic Michelle Dockery, who was Sir Peter's outstanding Eliza in his recent production of Pygmalion).

Le Prevost nicely builds Vanya's mounting frustration, with a tripping petulance, an incessant grumbling before going on to his crazy and inevitably failed gun attack. It's a suffering, but never bleak performance.

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Matching him is Neil Pearson's powerful, driven doctor, distraught - like any modern environmentalist - that Russia's forests are disappearing for no good purpose, while for ordinary Russians, life descends into a wasteland of increasing poverty. Pearson, in boots, beard and overcoat makes him a disturbing figure, unfailingly upsetting as he spouts his visions to people who may not understand, or know what to do about them

The women are both victims and part of the same indolence.

Sonya, the professor's daughter, played by Loo Brealey, (a fine young actor who is increasingly making a serious mark) loves the doctor which he can't return while he, like Vanya, is drawn to the Professor's wife.

It is poor Sonya and Vanya, when everyone has gone away - as people do in Chekhov - who eventually have to work a way of coping with the future.

Ivan Howlett

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