Uncle Vanya at the Orange Tree Theatre review: Trevor Nunn's intimate, humane revival is quietly devastating

Madeleine Gray and James Lance in Uncle Vanya at the Orange Tree Theatre (Manuel Harlan)
Madeleine Gray and James Lance in Uncle Vanya at the Orange Tree Theatre (Manuel Harlan)

Amazingly, this is Trevor Nunn’s first attempt at staging this particular Chekhov play, but his intimate and humane production proves very much worth the wait.

His adaptation uses colloquial, anachronistic English. It’s stronger on comedy than on pathos, and the men’s roles are more subtly defined than the women’s. But it unlocks undercurrents in the work I’ve never registered before and when it counts it’s quietly devastating.

At 84, the former director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National – not to mention Cats, Starlight Express, lots of other Chekhovs and Stoppards – is still out there exploring new territory, mostly in mid-scale London venues.

New musicals he’s helmed at the Menier have misfired, but the Orange Tree’s in-the-round auditorium perfectly suits a domestic drama where the characters are driven to despair by proximity.

James Lance will be familiar to Ted Lasso fans for playing the journalist Trent Crimm. Here his disheveled, sonorously fuming Vanya is humiliated daily by an older and a younger man. He covets Elena, the nubile new wife of his dead sister’s ageing, academic former husband Serebryakov (William Chubb). But Elena is attracted to his strapping, proto-ecologist doctor friend, Astrov (Andrew Richardson). Here the men are not just rivals but reflections of each other.

 (Manuel Harlan)
(Manuel Harlan)

Serebryakov is squandering the life Vanya wanted. Astrov may end up the thwarted drunkard Vanya has become. There’s rare detail in how the men interact. Chubb adds depth to a character who’s usually a pompous cypher.

Richardson confirms the charismatic promise shown in his stage debut as Sky in Guys & Dolls at the Bridge Theatre. Lance is a more stridently funny Vanya than is usual, but the final scenes, in which he is consumed by shame, are therefore more powerful.

The futile passion that Elena (Lily Sacofsky) and Vanya’s niece Sonya (Madeleine Gray) share for Astrov should be as sad as anything that afflicts the men: maybe sadder. The acting of both roles here is credible but overemphatic, full of yearning glances, hand-wringing, and nervous laughter. I suspect Nunn’s attention was focused on the men. The most convincing female character here is housekeeper Marina, played with sublime nonchalance by Juliet Garricks.

Simon Daw’s design involves sumptuous costumes and minimal furniture: I’m not sure the exchange of a pair of external swing doors for internal ones during the interval is even necessary. Sound designer Max Pappenheim and lighting designer Johanna Town deftly evoke the charm, and the tedium, of the countryside.

Last night sustained applause drew Lance and Gray out for a second curtain call. They waited for the rest of the cast, who didn’t arrive. So they bowed, embarrassed, to each other. A very Chekhovian ending.

Orange Tree Theatre, to April 13; orangetreetheatre.co.uk