By Olivia Maskill
“Are you happy?” “Oh god… not really”
As other English interpretations of ‘Uncle Vanya’ have stuck to a serious and almost conversational tone, Jones and Kirby’s rendition manages to inject a surprise element of drama and offbeat comedy into one of Chekhov’s finest works, while still adhering to his original themes of unrequited love and the suffering of being.
Taking on not an inconsiderable feat, this reimagining takes the audience into the relatable hearth of any British family, complete with the ignored child, a senile grandmother, and a dodgy uncle. The alternating peaks and troughs of drama and comedy leave the audience in a fluctuating state of joy and empathy at this all-too realistic family dynamic.
The titular character Uncle Vanya, played by Joe Kent-Walters, is everyone’s off-the-wall, slightly pervy uncle; from his drunken outbursts to the sweat patches and his dampened attempts at seduction. Kent-Walters plays a man we all know, yet still manages to entertain and surprise with comic precision. “When I am sober I am in deep, deep, deep… pain.” A character who oozes unearned confidence, until his mental crash back to Earth.
Doctor Astrov, played by Morgan King, is an initial baseline of seriousness that takes a nosedive into the dramatic; a believable victim to the undercurrent of this dysfunctional family unit. A restrained sensibility and strength that resonates through the audience, as we pity his fall to lust.
Joe Callaghan shines as The Professor, the estranged patriarch played as a strange, yet entertaining mixture of perverse and camp. Callaghan commanded the stage from his first fake-tanned appearance. As perhaps the only happy character in the play, despite his decrepit appearance and obvious delusion, Callaghan creates an unforgettable and flamboyant character thoroughly enjoyed by the audience.
Elena, played by Sophie Coulson, is a believable heiress: beautiful, elusive, unreadable. A lit fuse in an already tense situation that effortlessly floats the length of the stage entrapping the male characters in her passive cat’s cradle of seduction.
Alice Fox as Sonia is an extremely likable and empathetic character. My only criticism is that she is perhaps too beautiful to play the notoriously plain Sonia, but that can’t be helped. Through her performance, the play is allowed to hit the required notes in order to be true to Chekhov’s original vision. Her experience of rejection and abandonment brings this comic version back to where it needs to be, a reflection of the true hardships of life and the need for suffering. Fox is a true homage to Chekhov’s Russian stoicism.
No doubt one of the stand-out performances for me was Yasmin Rapley, playing Mrs. Villiers, the decrepit mother of Vanya. Her frail flickings of cake, and unbelievably larger than life characterisation created some of the most memorable comedic moments of the play. “I’ve sat on a chocolate coin.”
The cast as an ensemble never failed to transmit the story through the medium of comedy.
Daisy Fisher as the barmaid Mary shows maturity beyond youth, while delivering quick remarks that undercut the other characters with a sense of good-tempered wit. Handyman Elliot, played by Sam Miller, is innocence in an ill-fitting boiler suit. An interesting and hilarious interpretation of the original character that seized the audience’s attention and imagination. Finally, Unnamed Man, played by Barney Matthews, who showed a remarkable range for a man who mostly sits drinking; from disgust to wonder to boredom to back pain. A reflection of the own audience’s gaze and Chekhov’s gun personified. An amusing and interactive element of surprise, which delivers a much needed spirituality at some of the darker moments of the play.
All in all, this interpretation showed a unique and strong voice, delivering both laughs and real human emotion through an incredibly talented cast and first-class writing. A 21st century update on a classic, with a wise boozy relocation, amenable to abundant comic and tragic drunken endeavors.
“You have never known what happiness was Uncle Vanya, but wait… we shall rest”.
Image Credit: Leeds Theatre Group