Following on from my interview with company director and performer Venetia Twigg earlier in the week, I stopped off in Wimbledon today to see the newest production from Theatrical Niche: Twigg’s adaptation of Chekhov’s classic Uncle Vanya.

Vanya (Matthew Houlihan) runs the farm and estate together with his niece, Sonia (Foxey Hardman), who inherited it from her late mother, Vanya’s sister. They are currently being hospitable to Sonia’s father, a Professor (Mike Aherne) in a constant state of poor health, and his young wife, Yelena (Twigg).

Into this familial space comes Dr Astroff (David Tudor), called to attend on the Professor, but just like the faithful, toiling Vanya, he falls in love with the pretty but idle Yelena. In the shadows plain but clever Sonia dreams naively of the doctor, embellishing meaningless little moments of courtesy into imitations of love.

David Tudor as Astroff and Foxey Hardman as Sonia
David Tudor as Astroff and Foxey Hardman as Sonia

Theatrical Niche’s production mixes modern vernacular, physical theatre and choreography, and a faithful if truncated exploration of Chekhov’s story, and mixes it with the metaphor of bees. The workers are the women (represented by Sonia), the drones the male sex slaves (Astroff and Vanya), all dominated and disturbed by the Queen (Yelena).

Vanya’s descent into drink and suicidal despair in the final act, pushed by the Professor’s distain of both his former brother-in-law and daughter, is well represented. Astroff’s blank aloofness with Sonia while he is dazzled by the beauty of Yelena leads him to neglect his trees and planting, and his other patients. Sonia’s attempt to find a friend in her stepmother just hastens calamity.

From “drowning in honey” at the start of the play to drowning in despair by the end, Uncle Vanya‘s trajectory may feel dramatic; the setting, all wooden frames and boxes, and the bee/conservation parallel, makes it feel up to date, even if one or two pieces of contemporary slang (“diddly squat”) jar with the musicality of the original source.

Matthew Houlihan as Vanya
Matthew Houlihan as Vanya

This is a Vanya which is small in stature but big in heart, which blends its elements in the Studio’s black box space to create an experience which resonates with a 21st century prooccupation with money, work and mental health. It is an engrossing play which has moments which chill and move its audience, and the intimacy of a small space heightens this feeling.

Director Nadia Papachronpoulou’s programme notes speak of approaching Chekhov from “both the psychological and physiological … to create a visceral physical experience”. I think she has succeeded, along with movement director Amy Lawrence in developing a piece which considers and demonstrates the impact of the actions of one person on another.

Uncle Vanya has finished its run in Wimbledon but is on at the Old Red Lion in Islington from 2 – 7 December.

Photo credits Ali Wright.

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