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Uncle Vanya at St James theatre

First Published 14 October 2014, Last Updated 6 June 2018

What’s it all about?

Misery and misanthropy. Unrequited love. Loveless marriage. Lives thrown away and dreams discarded.

Yet playwright Anya Reiss and director Russell Bolam – working together on their third Chekhov adaptation – have filled this bleak tale with fun, energy and vibrancy. Oh, and they’ve switched it from the 19th century to the modern day.

Who’s in it?

John Hannah – you know him from Sliding Doors, Four Weddings And A Funeral and Spartacus – is the headline casting as the titular family member. His Crocs-wearing, pedal-pusher-sporting Vanya seems the loveable layabout, irritating those around him to pass the time, until he exposes the anger and depth of sadness in this man whose life has slipped away in the service of others.

From a cast that also includes Joe Dixon bringing a huge, booming personality to ecologically motivated Astrov and Rebecca Night lending unknowing sultriness to unhappy wife Yelena, Amanda Hale stands out as the oft-forgotten Sonya.

Arguably one of our most talented but least heralded actresses, you feel every nanosecond of her performance as a character so meek she fades into everyone else’s background. I could return to the show solely to watch her performance.

What should I look out for?

Dixon’s drunken dance moves that, though highly likely to bring the audience out in grins, are highly unlikely to win him a role in Thriller Live.

Everything Hale does, from the quiet sadness on her face as she lingers in the shadows of the action to her famous final speech, which is both eminently hopeful and desperately sad.

In a nutshell?

Reiss completes a superb hat-trick with a Vanya that finds the fun in perpetual misery.

Who was in the press night crowd?

Samuel West, who played Astrov in the West End not two years ago, taking a look at Dixon’s version. There was a potential Withnail And I reunion with both Richard E Grant and Paul McGann in the audience. We’re pretty sure it was Paul, anyway. And Harry Hadden-Paton, last seen in the Jamie Lloyd-directed The Pride, was in to support his wife, Night.

What’s being said on Twitter?

@Cwebby76 Well, cast of @UncleVanya2014, that was astonishing. I’m a bit blown away.

@Hatmangooner Great night at @StJamesTheatre seeing Uncle Vanya. Brilliant performances, especially Amanda Boxer. Who’s my ex-wife. So there. #unclevanya

Will I like it?

Don’t let a cast of characters convinced their lives are miserable – whether they are or not – put you off; this Vanya is hugely accessible, adding eccentricity where dourness might do and injecting life into the characters who are wasting there’s. And in amongst the many impressive, enjoyable turns, Hale gives a quiet master class. An unmissable performance.

Uncle Vanya is playing at the St James Theatre until 8 November. You can book tickets through the theatre’s website.

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