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‘Uncle Vanya’ review – Toby Jones is hilarious in a sluggish search for meaning

★★★★

There’s a reason why ushers at the Harold Pinter Theatre may seem stricter than usual around phone use. Rosmersholm director Ian Rickson’s take on Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya – adapted by Conor McPherson (The Girl from the North County) – mesmerises in almost total silence. A tragi-comic reflection on existentialism, Rickson and a stellar cast establish a tone remarkable for its sombreness and fragility.

Of the company, it is Sherlock star Toby Jones’ playfulness with said tone as an incredulous, moaning Uncle Vanya which is particularly noticeable. A master of timing, his witticisms not only make for brilliant comic relief, but they also do well to move a plot which somewhat drags in pace.

It’s slowing tempo may well be because McPherson’s version is reliant on exposition. Jones sets off the lengthy monologues which occur across the play, direct to the audience. Vanya has a dislike for Professor Serebryakov (Translations‘ Ciáran Hinds), who’s turned up at their house – another beautiful interior design from Rae Smith, gorgeously lit by Bruno Poet – with his wife Yelena (The Starry Messenger‘s Rosalind Eliazar). Elsewhere, troubled doctor Astrov (The Hobbit star Richard Armitage) pops in for the occasional drink, bumping into Vanya’s niece Sonya (Downstate and Sex Education‘s Aimee Lou Wood). The company is completed by Anna Calder-Marshall (The Seagull), Dearbhla Molloy (The Ferryman) and Peter Wight (Rosmersholm).

Most of these characters are, over the course of two hours and 30 minutes, tired and looking for something to do – to find a sense of meaning. In a heavy first act, they offload their baggage into us – ranging from mid-life crises to love triangles. The running time provides ample time for character development, but not a lot for action. Though when these rare moments of drama surface, the quiet is disrupted in startling, shocking fashion.

While incredibly delayed and drawn out for a production of its length, how the fallout is processed by each member of the household is revelatory and devastating. This is particularly the case with Sonia, with Wood delivering a heartbreaking portrayal of the young dreamer. The lack of energy may be the biggest tragedy for some, but that may well be the point in this otherwise powerfully performed, character-driven musing on existentialism.

Uncle Vanya is now playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 2 May.


Production Images: Johan Persson.

Disclaimer: I was invited to watch Uncle Vanya for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this review and all opinions stated are honest and my own.

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