WORTH A LOOK?: ****1/2
WHERE? Harold Pinter Theatre RUNTIME: 160 minutes (including a 20-minute interval)
WHEN? 14/1, press night 23/1 runs to 2/5/20
Six years after a brooding Olivier-nominated performance as John Proctor in the Old Vic’s production of The Crucible and Richard Armitage (pictured above in rehearsal) is back on the London stage in Conor McPherson’s re-imagining of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya
- Read on for reasons including how Toby Jones is the comic highlight as Armitage goes topless
We approached this star-powered Vanya with some trepidation because Robert Icke’s 2016 Almeida version had been so memorable yet hadn’t transferred to the West End.
We needn’t have worried because, while the story and structure remains intact largely, McPherson’s (the Old Vic production of Girl In The North Country currently playing in the West End at the Gielgud Theatre) is as funny as it is heartbreaking.
This is down in no small part to Toby Jones (who we saw last year at the Royal Court) who plays the titular 47-year-old who looks after his niece Sonya on a crumbling estate in Russia at the turn of the 20th century.
Life is quiet with occasional visits by Armitage’s local doctor to look forward to until Sonya’s father (an intentionally annoying Ciaran Hinds) and his much younger new wife Yelena (Rosalind Eleazar giving us outer beauty and inner laziness) drop by bringing chaos with them.
The plot becomes almost Shakespearean with misplaced affections everywhere and people falling in love with those they shouldn’t.
Jones runs an absolute riot with his midlife crisis and Armitage’s doctor proves what a good man he is as well as being ahead of his time in environmental terms yet falls for the wrong woman and lets the one with the biggest heart go begging. The scene when he kisses the unfortunate woman’s head as she reaches for his lips had members of this audience both sobbing and gasping.
Armitage also gets to blow raspberries, get drunk with Vanya and guitar-playing chum Telegin (an admirable supporting turn by Peter Wight) while even dancing topless in the rain at one point.
Aimee Lou Wood as the wise-beyond-her-years Sonya gets some of the best lines and veterans Anna Calder-Marshall and Dearbhla Molloy round out a fine cast.
It’s hugely unfair to review a first preview but this didn’t have the feel of one. We may only have given director Ian Rickson’s Uncle Vanya four-and-a-half stars but it doesn’t open until next week.
Very enjoyable, intensely moving and 2020’s first big show out of the blocks thoroughly deserved its first preview standing ovation.