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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
by Lizzie Loveridge

Astrov. Dr Michael Astrov. A man with vision; and close to saintliness; and not always sober.
-- Sonya
Penelope Wilton as Sonya and John Hurt as Andrey (Photo: John Haynes)
Sequels to loved books by a different author create expectation and all too often disappointment. However when the author is the celebrated Irish playwright Brian Friel and the original by Chekhov, whose works Friel has regularly adapted, there is hope. Still, I was cautious when invited to see Afterplay. Friel's work is set twenty five years after the original plays. Sonya Serebriakoya from Uncle Vanya and Andrey Prozorov from The Three Sisters meet in a Moscow café. I liked it very much. I cannot think of another play where two characters from two different plays have their lives extended literally. There is of course, Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead following two characters but that is just one play and the scenes are contemporary with the action of Hamlet. Seeing Afterplay so soon after seeing Sam Mendes' Uncle Vanya at the Donmar Warehouse, the resonances were strong, the memory bright. I just wish it were not four years since I last saw a production of The Three Sisters.

The quality of Friel's writing makes these personal accounts into involving drama. We want to know whether Sonya and Andrey will stay in touch, will meet again. I think Friel has remained true to Chekhov's original characters in his imagination as to what would have happened to them in the intervening years. Both characters are delusional. Andrey tells lies, embroidering the reality with what he would have liked to have happened. He speaks of his successful children, of his life as a violinist in an orchestra, of his dead wife, only to quickly confess to Sonya that these are all untruths. Whereas Sonya prefers to cling to her fantasy that Astrov needs her and that there is some hope for her twenty three year old unrequited love. Sonya has trouble swallowing the cold tea and the hard truth as Andrey talks of the "dream life", the move to Moscow, being a perpetual expectation and touches a raw nerve. She adds vodka to the tea which makes everything more palatable but she looks sad. Friel gives us a tender portrait of these two characters who can also laugh together. Sonya describes her "endless tundra of loneliness" and Andrey recalls his ten years as an alcoholic.

John Hurt is charming as Andrey. His face weathered, his clothes shabby, he smiles nervously, each confession endearing us to him. Hurt of course has a very beautiful voice which cracks as he talks with emotion about what has happened to his sisters. Penelope Wilton as Sonya is constantly going through her piles of papers, bills and letters which are in a muddle. She tells us of the death of Vanya from a stroke and reminisces fondly. Wilton has the sharp mind and a spinsterish, brusque directness that doesn't allow Andrey to linger in a lie but invites the confession. They are like parent and charming child.

Liz Ascroft's set is a beautifully dilapidated Moscow café with small round tables and old metal chairs, the windows set in a semi-circle in premises which have seen better days. A 'cello's soulful notes set the scene with poignancy. I saw Afterplay with someone who had seen neither of the Chekhov originals but who none the less found the piece satisfying and meretricious on its own. Brian Friel does that. He writes plays that stay in the imagination.

Uncle Vanya at the Donmar Warehouse

Written by Brian Friel
Directed by Robin Le Fèvre

Starring: Penelope Wilton and John Hurt
Designer: Liz Ascroft
Lighting Designer: Mick Hughes
Running time: One hour ten minutes with no interval
Box Office: 0870 890 1105
Booking to 1st December 2002
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 24th September 2002 performance at the Gielgud Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1 (Tube Station: Piccadilly Circus)
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