Anton Chekhov’s Vaudevilles – White Bear Theatre, London

Reviewer: Rachel Kent

Writer: Anton Chekhov

Director: Jenny Eastop

Warning to playwrights: a long and boring play can get you murdered. Although this rather enjoyable sliver of a show includes a scene of poeticide (as it may be called), it wouldn’t be likely to happen to Anton Chekhov or Michael Frayn, who translates and adapts the plays.

Warning to audiences: to a modern British audience these plays are about as funny as any of Chekhov’s full-length plays. That is, they may raise an occasional smile. Jenny Eastop hasn’t tried to force the humour. She directs lively performances which acknowledge the exaggerated nature of nineteenth century comedy. The enthusiastic playwright and her unwilling listener strike poses like a Punch cartoon; a hypochondriac suitor collapses over every single piece of furniture. Inventive scene changes mean that not one of the sixty minutes is wasted. Jordan Rhys-Moffatt’s lighting convincingly transforms the stage from study to lecture theatre, drawing room to bumpy country lane.

Of the actors, Andy Secombe is the most experienced – he gets all the dad roles – and the most assured. He is at his most impressive as Nyukhin, the side-lined husband who starts off awkwardly with an unprepared speech and then bares his soul: ‘I’m old and poor and miserable’. The audience is compelled to participate, being by turns scornful, sympathetic, appalled and relieved.

It is difficult to avoid caricature in these short pieces, and sometimes the younger actors overdo it. However, Laura Hall deserves a lot of credit for playing all the parts, including an entire ‘squadron of Cossacks’ in a five-act play, whatever its merits may be. She has a superb moment of comedy in The Proposal, when her character, a tough farm-manager, improvises a switch to winsome charm with a modest striptease (she just takes off her apron, but she does it with glamour). Sam Denia exudes self-satisfied confidence as the successful writer, and the opposite as the stooping nervous suitor.

Times have changed, even in the eleven years ago since these plays were performed at The Hampstead Theatre. Do women really crave marriage so much they go all simpering and ridiculous for anything in trousers? Is Nyukhin’s wife really ‘an evil, evil miser’ or is he an impossible partner? How easy was it for a female writer to be noticed late nineteenth century Russia?

The plays may now seem less charming, but they are no less interesting.

Runs until 30 October 2021

The Reviews Hub Score

Chekhov lite

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