Home Theatre, Manchester; Friday 17th November 2017
Uncle Vanya is a man who embodies the old adage that nice guys always finish last. He works his socks off running the family business, he dutifully cares for his niece when his sister dies; Vanya is a man always putting others first and what does he get for it? Nothing.
Uncle Vanya the play is part of Home Theatre’s wider season of events commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Russian revolution – though Russian playwright Anton Chekhov originally wrote it two decades earlier. One word perfectly summarises what Uncle Vanya portrays on the stage: despair. At least four characters are lusting over an unrequited love. On top of that there is the despair of a loveless marriage; the despair of being told you’re about to lose your home; the despair of seeing your family leave you to seek their fortune in the big city.
Despite the plot delivering one dreary turn of events after another, this is a production that leaves a far more positive lasting impression, thanks to the production team’s impressive attention to detail, which becomes evident in various aspects throughout the performance.
The acting performances by the leading players are exemplary, each character exudes intense emotion and feeling that seems so realistic – the result is a strong connection with each personality and repeated asks of the same question: what would I do in this situation?
But amazingly, because the numbing despair is acted out so well by the lead performers, the unexpected star of the show is Carol Macready as the no-nonsense Nanna – an elderly woman who just lets all the madness go on around her while she carries on with her knitting, interjecting occasionally with a comic observation or two – Macready’s Nanna inadvertently answers all the deep philosophical questions that Chekhov’s play raises with one simple principle of conduct: stop being an idiot and just behave yourself.
Uncle Vanya is a gourmet meal of a play: beautifully arranged and constructed in a subtle and reserved manner. The sound effects and backing music are serene and set the Russian theme gently, as well as suddenly emphasising the more dramatic points in the plot. And the set is immense: huge walls of peeling wallpaper, scuffed skirting boards and rickety old wooden furniture – the glamour-free interior of a grotty Russian farm house takes over every last part of the stage.
So much technical effort has gone in to this production, including the impressive sight of rain falling at a window and a tree trembling in the wind as a storm approaches. But each part appropriately adds something extra, and none of it seems a gratuitous attempt to add frill for the sake of it.
Home Theatre’s stage #1 may not be the biggest performance platform out there but Uncle Vanya feels like a big production. This is an exciting piece of work, a play that justifiably allows Manchester to steal some limelight from the big-money big-wigs of the London theatre scene.