The Lady With a Dog – White Bear Theatre, London

Original story: Anton Chekhov

Adaptor and director: Mark Giesser

Reviewer: Stephen Bates

Starting with a short story written by Anton Chekhov in 1899, writer and director Mark Giesser has devised a play about marital infidelity in the mid-1920s that has the feel of Noël Coward. It hovers between the casual frivolity of Private Lives and the fraught, guilt-ridden romance of Still Life (filmed as Brief Encounter).

Oscar Selfridge’s art deco set design dazzles and then baffles. Deck chairs lie around a sunlit balcony, looking out towards a cloudless sky and a calm, dark blue sea. Yes, this is coastal Scotland. If the production’s sense of location falls short, Giulia Scrimieri’s keenly observed costumes at least give it a far more accurate sense of period.

Holidaying North of the Border, separate from their respective spouses, are the prim Anne (Beth Burrows), accompanied by her playful Pomeranian, and debonair ex-army officer Damian (Alan Turkington), a serial seducer. These characters come from the affluent upper middle classes of their era that populated much of Coward’s writing, perhaps passing their time solving cryptic crosswords, playing Golf in the afternoon and Bridge in the evening. Can anyone blame them for spicing things up with a spot of adultery?

Back home in Wiltshire, Anne’s dull, humourless husband Carl (Duncan MacInnes), a bespectacled, pipe-smoking soon-to-be Tory MP, is nursing his war wound. In London, Damian’s stern, frumpy wife Elaine (Laura Glover) is looking after the couple’s three children, aware of her husband’s probable antics whenever he is away from home. Neatly, Giesser merges in imaginary conversations between all four characters with actual conversations, allowing them all to reveal more of themselves and their self-obsessiveness.

Essentially, this is a tale about what boring people do when they get bored and Giesser does well to stop his production from itself becoming boring too often. Anne confesses to having “taken a liking to making love beside a moonlit rock pool” but, as with all holiday romances, the question is what will happen when the pair return to their homes. Act II sees Anne and Damian torn between love and duty, but, if we are meant to believe that they are having a torrid affair rather than just a holiday fling, it feels remiss that hardly any passion can be felt on stage.

We may wonder what the agonising in this play has to do with the world almost a century later when social behaviour has changed so radically. Anne could provide an answer when she talks of public expectations of politicians and their wives and we may reflect that news reports almost every day demonstrate the extent to which hypocrisy still abounds. Relevance proves to be less of a problem for the play than length, the short story that provides Geisser’s source material feeling too thin to be stretched out to two hours (including interval). Pleasurable as a great deal of this production is, it is also much too long.

Runs until 10 March 2018 | Image: Contributed

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