Theatre review: Uncle Varick, Livingston

The excellent cast includes John Stahl and Jimmy Chisholm as Sandy and Varick
The excellent cast includes John Stahl and Jimmy Chisholm as Sandy and Varick
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AFTER 20 years of growing inequality in Britain, it’s difficult to believe that there was a time – just a generation ago – when distinctions of class and wealth seemed to be in permanent decline.

Uncle Varick - Howden Park Theatre, Livingston

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John Byrne’s flawed but fascinating version of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya – first seen at the Royal Lyceum in 2004, and now revived by Rapture Theatre in a production that arrives at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, on Wednesday – seeks to capture Chekhov’s sense of a landed gentry in decline by taking us back to the late 1960s, and setting the play on an estate in north-east Scotland where the middle-aged Varick manages the business on behalf of his niece Sonja, who inherited the estate from her late mother, Varick’s much-loved sister.

Varick and Sonja’s peaceful, hard-working life is disrupted, though, when Sonja’s widowed father – a big-shot London arts critic and television presenter – arrives to live on the estate with his new young trophy wife Elaine, a gorgeous creature dressed in an array of eye-popping Quant-style fashions. Add to the mix the handsome 40-ish doctor, Michael, with his passion for the environment and his drink problem, and you have a fine brew of late-Sixties love, politics and social change, nicely matched to Chekhov’s original play.

The question is whether this glimpse of a time long gone, evoked through a few references in the script and a vintage record-player on stage, really speaks to us in the year 2014.

And despite the excellence of the cast Michael Emans has assembled, the answer seems to be both yes and no. Jessica Brettle’s picture-frame set looks gorgeous at the outset, but sooon becomes far more claustrophobic than the play itself.

The performances are wildly variable, with Ashley Smith superb and moving as Sonja, Selina Boyack in fine form as Elaine, George Anton oddly awkward as the doctor, and Jimmy Chisholm beginning on an uncertain, tongue-tied note as Varick, only to mature towards greatness in the closing scenes.

The show isn’t much helped, either, by David Anderson’s uncomfortable between-scenes renderings of hits from the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, in the role of estate tenant Willie John.

In the end, Chekhov’s final scenes shine through, in all their mighty longing and sadness. That, though, is all about the old magic of fine actors getting to grips with this greatest of plays about human disappointment and loss. All the rest is just window-dressing, whether a century ago, in the 1960s, or today.

Seen on 01.05.14

• King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, 7-10 May and on tour 12 May-6 June.