Rarely has a play’s title so succinctly encapsulated a piece’s overwhelming emotion.
So strong is the unspoken history between Tamsin Greig’s provincial doctor and Iain Glen’s successful Moscow lawyer that the snatched glances, wayward stares and emotion-laden pauses break the heart over and over in the two hours of William Boyd’s debut play.
The amalgam of two Chekhov short stories, A Visit To Friends and My Life, finds lawyer Kolia – a calm, staid presence with a hidden heavy heart in Glen’s hands – returning to the scene of childhood memories. In his eyes, nothing has changed, but in a Cherry Orchard-esque plot, the estate has fallen to ruin. The dry, cynical Varia – played by Greig with mischievous, defensive wit and unspeakable heartbreak – positively aches for a love that is barely referenced but always as present as the Lizzie Clachan-designed woodland-set summer house that at first appears idyllic before you notice the tired roof and distressed wood that reflects the mood of the family.
Around Greig and Glen unfolds a tale of changing times and altering class rules. Alan Cox’s French-spouting Sergei, for whom the term nincompoop could well have been invented, has frittered more money than a banker with a penchant for batter and may be forced to sell the family estate to John Sessions’ blustering, brash and bellowing Dolzikhov and his spoiled daughter Kleopatra, who Catrin Stewart plays with a cutting voice that makes teeth itch like angry nails being scraped down a shouty blackboard. She, in turn, is betrothed to architect’s son Misail (William Postlethwaite) who would rather shun his privileged life for a working one of toil, calluses and hard labour.
Though Boyd is an award-winning novelist and screenwriter – his credits include Any Human Heart and Restless – Longing marks his first foray into theatre. You wouldn’t know. Yes, having Chekhov as source material helps, as does entrusting the direction to Nina Raine, herself an award-winning playwright, yet Boyd works thematic alchemy to bring two short stories into one in this melancholy tale of wanting the unattainable. More so, he leaves space for the cast, and Greig and Glen in particular, to explore what is unsaid more than what is spoken, with heart-rending effects.