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A CurtainUp London London Review

The architect's son painting the summerhouse roof. What is the world coming to? — Sergei
Tamsin Greig as Varia and Iain Glen as Kolia (Photo: Manuel Harlan)
William Boyd has long been one of my favourite novelists and here at Hampstead Theatre is his very first play. It's an adaptation or blend (the programme calls it a fusion) of two Chekhovian short stories, A Visit to Friends and My Life.

The characters Boyd takes from these tales are Mesail (William Postlethwaite) a son of a professional architect who identifies with the labouring classes and finds himself a job as a house painter and so is one of the earliest examples of a middle class drop out. . . his philosophical foreman Radish (Tom Georgeson) who the ghastly girl Mesail here called Kleopatra (Catrin Stewart), is manipulated into marrying . . / her father Dolzikhov (John Sessions), a railway engineer and stock Chekhov character repossessing estates from the landed gentry having become one of the nouveaux rich after successfully speculating in property development.

In the first act — the scene beautifully set by Lizzie Clachan's peeling paint, wooden summerhouse with its wood shingles, surrounded by tall, thin silver birch trees and real growing grass, to the sound of bird song — we meet two sisters, both discontent in a Chekhovian way. Unmarried Varia (Tamsin Greig) is a doctor at a nearby town. She is handsome, hard working, disillusioned, witty and smoking her life away in cigarettes. Beautiful Tania (Natasha Little) has married this total creep and is disappointed in her marriage. Their youngest sister Natasha (Eve Ponsonby) is pretty and not yet old enough to feel disappointed, but she will be.

Varia and Tania realise that Tania's husband Sergei (Alan Cox) has badly mismanaged the estate and they face financial ruin unless their old friend Kolia (Iain Glen), who is now an important Moscow lawyer, can sort out the legality of the impending repossession by the bank. Sergei is without charm. He has frittered away Tania's father's money in a deal he brokered with a Japanese "businessman" he met in a brothel. He is bombastic, arrogant and a cheat.

Both Natasha and Varia have/had hopes that Kolia might propose to them. Kolia's motto which he has engraved on a ring is "All Things Will Pass" and this seems to be the excuse for doing nothing. The summerhouse is being painted for the celebration of the betrothal of Kleopatra and Mesail. By Act Two, spoilt Kleopatra will be teeth gratingly vulgar and drunk; Mesail will give his poetry to Natasha to read; Sergei and Kolia will come to blows and Varia and Tania will realise that their family home cannot be saved. This loss and regret and ennui of hopelessness runs through Chekhov's plays like a river torrent, implacable and relentless.

This is the finest performance I have seen from Tamsin Greig - she is made for Chekhov with her sardonic, self deprecating humour and the beaten body language of despair. Even looking radiant in her beautiful ball gown, disappointment is all she can expect. Someone must have seen how wonderful Iain Glen was as Uncle Vanya at the Print Room in 2012 and so here as Kolia he is the person on whom too many hopes rest. Sergei wallows in the misfortune, blaming fate, Tania blames him as the family is forced to give up their home.

There are wonderful touches: the cheap grey suit worn by Mesail. A suit is de rigeur for the betrothal party, a cheap one is his way of making a silent protest. The ghastly Kleopatra and Dolzikhov will try to throw working class Radish out of the party. Radish's philosophical rif is, "Rust eats iron, Lies eat the soul." The coloured bunting round the summerhouse, which Tania must move into with Sergei and her children, is reflected by being painted in multicoloured diamonds, turning a beautiful distressed, shabby chic wooden house into something more at home in a fairground.

Director Nina Raine has done a splendid job and gets star performances from her actors who are all cleverly cast. Tamsin Greig is outstanding, William Postlethwaite is gorgeously gangly and unconventional, Iain Glen is brilliant as the ambivalent man, wriggling his way out of commitment. What we can be sure of is the disappointment, the prevarication of the older generation will be repeated as Mesail looks back on his life.

This excellent production surely has to transfer if Tamsin Greig is available. I love Chekhov's plays but they can be overdone. Boyd hasn't given us anything ersatz. This is the real thing. Oh, and now he's discovered playwriting, could we have a stage version of Stars and Bars please?

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Written by William Boyd after short stories by Anton Chekhov
Directed by Nina Raine

Starring: Tamsin Greig, Iain Glen, Natsha Little, Alan Cox, William Postlethwaite, John Sessions, Tom Georgeson, Eve Ponsonby, Catrin Stewart
With: Mary Roscoe, George Kemp, Dave Perry, Lauren Slater, Pippa Wildwood
Designed by Lizzie Clachan
Composer: Patrick Neil Doyle
Lighting: James Farncombe
Sound: Gareth Fry
Choreography: Jane Gibson
Running time: Two hours including an interval
Box Office: 020 7722 9301
Booking to 6th April 2013
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 9th March 2013 matinee performance at the Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, London NW3 3EU (Tube: Swiss Cottage)

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