Dear Uncle: World Premiere Reviews
Dear Uncle (by Alfred Hickling)
If Alan Ayckbourn is more widely known for his writing than his directing, his role as an adaptor of other people's work is least known of all. Yet Ayckbourn has produced a thread of ingenious literary reinterpretations, including Sheridan's A Trip to Scarborough, Henry Becque's The Crows (retitled Wolf at the Door) and Alexander Ostrovsky's The Forest at the National Theatre.
Dear Uncle is a dual delight, as it's both a new play by Alan Ayckbourn and a classic old one by Anton Chekhov. It's really the rambler's version of Uncle Vanya, with the characters and situation transferred to the Lake District in 1935. But though the Cumbrian context and plus-fours are unfamiliar, it is entirely Chekhovian in essence.
It helps that of all Chekhov's plays, Uncle Vanya is perhaps the closest in spirit to Ayckbourn. Vanya's bungled attempt to shoot the professor is one of the hairpin moments common to both authors in which tragedy tips over into farce. It's delivered here with one of Ayckbourn's characteristic special effects, which suggests he has been hankering to stage the scene for ages.
There's also a revealing confluence between Astrov's ecological concerns and the activity of the British Forestry Commission in the 1930s, which saw swathes of the Lake District planted with the wrong type of trees. Phil Cheadle's Dr Ash (as he becomes known here) burns with frustration about alien conifers: "Rigid, regimental plantations without a glimmer of spontaneity and not a native hardwood in sight."
As the titular Uncle, the fresh-faced Matthew Cottle seems some way shy of his professed 47 years, yet this only compounds the tragedy of Vanya's compulsion to wish his life away. Any Loughton's plaintive Sonya advises him that he must endure - this Vanya seems condemned to endure longer than most.
(The Guardian, 14 July 2011)
Dear Uncle (by Ian Shuttleworth)
Uncle Marcus is the 47-year-old failure who runs the country estate of his vain, hypochondriacal professor brother-in-law while nursing a hopeless devotion to “Sir Prof”’s second wife; meanwhile, his teenage niece harbours an equally futile crush on the local doctor, who is nothing special except in such a socially starved milieu ... Sound familiar? Perhaps if, for “Marcus”, we substituted “Vanya” ... ? Exactly.
Chekhov is relocated to Irish country houses far more often than to English ones; it is hard to find a plausible analogue of rural isolation in English terms. But Alan Ayckbourn makes his choice of the Lake District work well, with characters suggesting that even Keswick is a bustling metropolis compared with the nowhere that is fictional Ennerdale.
Setting the play in the 1930s is another canny touch: just as the National Theatre’s revival last year of Rattigan’s After The Dance crystallised that moment, pre-second world war, when the urban upper middle classes began to glimpse their own pointlessness, so Ayckbourn here creates a rural equivalent by transplanting Chekhov’s characters. Russian fatalism morphs into English understatement in the ineffectual neighbour nicknamed “Waffles” or, more properly, Julian Touchweston (pronounced “Toughton”)-Smith. Terence Booth’s pomposity as “Sir Prof” also finds an authentically English voice.
One respect in which Ayckbourn’s normally sensitive ear lets him down here is that of expletives. Vanya, of course, grows increasingly blunt through Chekhov’s four acts, and Matthew Cottle’s Marcus is plain-spoken from the first but surely not even he, in 1935, would be quite as fond of dismissing so much so often as “bollocks”. This is the only major false note in Cottle’s portrayal of a man who, for all his grumbling, is really trying not to look face-on at his wasted life.
Likewise Phil Cheadle’s Dr Ash, whose passion for amateur forestry has seldom seemed less intellectually heroic, however Sonya may pant in awe at it. Amy Loughton’s Sonya is constantly referred to as doing well at school, and Loughton imbues her with a head-girlish briskness which modulates nicely into oh-gosh infatuation and disintegrates heartbreakingly in her final speech.
Ayckbourn does not find specific new insights in Uncle Vanya, but he does confirm the universality of the play and its characters.
(Financial Times, 15 July 2011)
Dear Uncle (by Clare Brennan)
Anton Chekhov's characters, like so many of their compatriots these days, it seems, are relocating to these shores. This autumn, his Three Sisters will be shifting to the Brontë Parsonage museum in Haworth for Blake Morrison's latest Northern Broadsides adaptation, while his Uncle Vanya has already been comfortably resettled in Ennerdale, thanks to Alan Ayckbourn.
Ayckbourn's transposition of the story and characters from an isolated, 1890s Russian estate to the Lake District in 1935 is complete and convincing. This is only partly due to cannily altered cultural references: vodka becomes whisky; environmental concerns shift from deforestation to recent Forestry Commission afforestation; name changes give class clues - Ivan Petrovich Voinitsky (Vanya) becomes Marcus.
It's the very success of the transposition, though, that nearly smothers the play – the first two acts feel so much like a stolid, between-the-wars country-house drama. Chekhov's multifaceted characters seem over-simplified; the pace of the action slows, at times, from leisurely to leaden. Then, after the interval - wham! Chekhov-Ayckbourn fission - a fireworks display of farce, comedy and tragedy around a dining table. The confrontation between Terence Booth's pompous professor and Matthew Cottle's wounded Vanya / Marcus (two belting performances) shreds reticence, bares hearts, exposes nerves. Facades now shattered, the first half makes sense.
The shared genius of Ayckbourn and Chekhov - penetratingly realised by the entire cast and crew - is to reveal the unique individuals beneath their (British or Russian) social layers.
(The Observer, 24 July 2011)
Dear Uncle (by Kevin Berry)
"For Uncle Vanya read Uncle Marcus and, rather than a Russian estate, Uncle Marcus and his relatives (and various hangers on) are living on an estate in Ennerdale in the Lake District. The year is 1935.
Alan Ayckbourn’s fondly coloured adaptation of Uncle Vanya was originally intended for a West End opening with a big name cast. Problems of big name availability put paid to that, so now Dear Uncle is enjoying the more traditional route of a premiere during the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s summer season. Tradition means a cast of proven Ayckbourn actors and likely newcomers. Tradition also means Ayckbourn as the director. Obviously he is a fine director of his own work and also, it should be emphasised, of anything by his hero Chekhov.
The inertia and tedium of life on the estate is seen and felt immediately. Professor Savidge (Terence Booth) comes home with his young wife, played by Frances Grey. She complains of the monotony yet unwittingly fires up passions she cannot tolerate.
The characters are at once Chekhovian and recognisably Ayckbourn. Illusions, realisation and devastation need no great emphasis. The farce is never forced. Matthew Cottle’s Uncle Marcus reacts superbly. His tearful final scene with Amy Loughton’s schoolgirl Sonya has much emotional focus. Loughton has Sonya growing steadily and significantly during the play.
With measured irony, the Al Bowlly hit Love is the Sweetest Thing is played during scene changes. The furniture is just right, costumes are scrumptious and the lighting is classically simple. This production is a total joy."
(stage.co.uk, 13 July 2011)
Dear Uncle (by Charles Hutchinson)
The comparisons between Alan Ayckbourn and Anton Chekhov have been made so often, it was surely only a matter of time before the Scarborough knight adapted one of the Russian’s dark dramas.
Prompted initially by a suggestion by York-raised director Matthew Warchus in 2008, Ayckbourn has brought an affectionate English slant to Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, relocating the tale of love, ennui and family friction to the Lake District in 1935, that lull in English history when there was too much time for thinking.
Directed in the round by Ayckbourn with trademark attention to detail - such as choreographed scene changes that draw rounds of applause - the domestic drama opens to the strains of Love Is The Sweetest Thing, when here, of course, love is anything but the sweetest thing.
“I’m the only living thing without a life. Isn’t that terrible?” says the enervated Marcus (Matthew Cottle), the re-named Vanya of the piece. “With a past that was entirely wasted and a present bordering on the ridiculous,” he judges himself.
He is right, of course. Marcus is 47, too articulate for his own sanity like Hamlet and stuck like Boxer in Orwell’s 1984 in the self-sacrificial drudge of running the family estate that had belonged to his late sister. Worse still, he is hopelessly in unrequited love with Helena (Frances Grey). He could be as much a feckless, inept male creation of Ayckbourn as of Chekhov, and Cottle’s performance of bewilderment at the world around him is a tragicomic gem.
Helena, meanwhile, is so bored, she can barely bring herself to walk round and round the table, pretty but pretty useless, and suddenly drawn to the conservation-fixated, drink-seeking Dr Charles Ash (Phil Cheadle), who has fared better at forest preservation than looking after himself.
For all his pontificating, Ash is an unthinking fellow, indifferent to the need for tender handling of the schoolgirl crush of Marcus’s niece Sonya (Amy Loughton), so sweet 16 and besotted. Loughton is new to Scarborough, another Ayckbourn discovery, and her face is a wonderfully expressive canvas throughout.
An old Ayckbourn favourite, Terence Booth, is in fine comedic form as the maddening, house-ruling Sir Cedric Savidge, the boringly loquacious professor whose self-pitying prattling, dyspeptic demeanour and insensitivity so irks Marcus.
Not to be overlooked, unlike his character, is the delightful cameo of another SJT stalwart, Richard Derrington, as the oft-ignored yet eternally charming chinless wonder Julian Touchweston-Smith, while Eileen Battye’s nanny Marie is consistently amusing as the only happy soul in this lake-land mire.
Dear Uncle is a slow-turning tragedy wrapped inside a taut, dark comedy of lost souls seemingly unable to break out of the chains of a stultifying life.
Through Ayckbourn’s sage gaze, it is the most painful, sad humour you will experience all year. Still Chekhov, but much more the English view on life’s lot.
(The Press, 16 July 2011)
Dear Uncle (by Judy Adock)
Uncle Vanya has been produced by various theatre companies over the years and Alan Ayckbourn directed the play in 1972 at the SJT. While Chekhov set his play on a beautiful country estate in Russia, Alan Ayckbourn's version is set in the Lake District in 1935. Chekhov used themes relating to everyday life, the futile, boring and lonely lives of people unable to communicate with one another and unequipped to change a society they knew to be inherently wrong.
Dear Uncle was destined to be premiered in the West End in 2008 but problems with the availability of actors made it impossible and so the play is now premiered in its rightful home, in Scarborough.
Chekhov's Vanya becomes Marcus (Matthew Cottle) who runs the family estate belonging to his late sister declares his life as unremarkable and wasted.
Her husband Sir Cedric Savidge (Terence Booth) with his young and glamorous new wife Helena (Frances Grey) lives on the estate. Sir Cedric now wants to sell the estate throwing the whole household into disarray.
His young daughter Sonya (Amy Loughton) and Marcus are shocked by this decision as they have worked tirelessly over the years to send him the proceeds of their labours only to receive a pittance of an allowance.
The country doctor Charles Ash (Phil Cheadle) neglects his patients as he becomes a frequent visitor to the
house. While falling in love with Helena he is compelled to tell her about the ecology of the Lake District and the planting of new trees.
Will this impress Helena whose life is so boring that at one point she can hardly stand straight! Unfortunately the doctor is not the only one to fall in love with Helena as Marcus finds himself captivated by the lady.
But his bitterness towards Sir Cedric overshadows everything he feels, bringing him to boiling point with a gun in his hand.
Meanwhile no one seems to have noticed that the doctor breaks Sonya's heart as she falls madly in love with him but he dismisses her as a mere school girl.
There is always a sympathetic word and a cup of tea from Marie (Eileen Battye) who stays well away from the ensuing drama comforting Sir Cedric with a warm blanket but with nothing else!
Richard Derrington makes a welcome return to the SJT with his hilarious portrayal of Julian Touchweston-Smith, an apparent friend of the family who is ignored more than noticed.
Alan Ayckbourn's play is an unforgettable study of unfulfilled dreams and unrequited love, which sparkles under his superb uncluttered direction. Audience members will feel part of the set as they intrude in the scenes from county life, laughing- at Marcus' ridiculous outbursts and wanting to comfort Sonya in the final heart breaking moments.
(The Gazette, 21 July 2011)
Dear Uncle (by Ron Simpson)
The Independent has called Alan Ayckbourn “the Chekhov of our time.” Once it was the likes of N.C. Hunter who were branded Chekhovian, but we now have a more robust view of the Russian master and give him credit for being funny. Not that that precludes depth of emotion: the ending of Dear Uncle, Alan Ayckbourn’s version of Uncle Vanya, with two characters trying to summon hope from the long loneliness of life, is as moving as you could wish, with Love is the Sweetest Thing playing on the gramophone.
Ayckbourn’s adaptation is set in Ennerdale in the Lake District in1935, when Ray Noble’s great song was still pretty much the newest thing. It follows the original fairly closely, though with some unusual choices of name. Many of the women, known by their forenames, are essentially unchanged, but Serebryakov turns into Sir Cedric Savidge (good indication of status) and Dr Astrov is simplified to Dr Ash, very appropriate to one so preoccupied with forests. An Uncle Vanya called Marcus takes some getting used to, though!
Sir Cedric, an eminent retired professor, has withdrawn to the farming estate he assumes ownership of, though strictly it belongs to his first wife’s family. His beautiful second wife Helena, the visiting doctor, Marcus the long-suffering in-law who works the farm and Sonya the professor’s daughter by his first marriage all become tangled in themes of unrequited love and purposeless existence. Age comes early to these people. Marcus feels he has become old at 47, the doctor has lost his vigour and purpose at a decade younger, Helena has to settle for blank boredom as long as Sir Cedric lives, and so on – and, of course, Marcus and Ash love the same woman, Sonya the wrong man, and happiness remains elusive for all.
However, none of this stops the play being funny. The famous scene where Vanya (Marcus) fails to shoot Serebryakov (Sir Cedric) is played, very successfully, as farce. The art of Chekhov, which Alan Ayckbourn captures, is to show us silly people we can laugh at (not with) who are also human beings experiencing real suffering from their illusions and who are therefore worthy of our sympathy.
Ayckbourn’s direction sets an unforced, but brisk, pace, allowing the moments of lingering uncertainty or pathos to stand out. As always, he secures excellent ensemble playing from a cast of eight, the extended (frequently self-lacerating) monologues growing out of naturalistic dialogue rather than being presented, as it were, in quotation marks. Matthew Cottle’s quiet desperation as Marcus is most affecting and Phil Cheadle reveals the problematic nature of the doctor intelligently and convincingly. Frances Grey’s elegant Helena and Amy Loughton’s gauche Sonya are well contrasted and Terence Booth barks his way through Sir Cedric with splendid complacency and constant complaints.
The transposition to the Lake District is successful, with the afforestation theme chiming with both 1930s history and Ash’s environmentalist preoccupations, and is well served by Jan Bee Brown’s designs.
(whatsonstage.com, 13 July 2011)
Dear Uncle (By Dominic Maxwell)
Alan Ayckbourn’s tragicomedies have been compared with Chekhov for long enough that he has finally decided to return the compliment. Dear Uncle is his new version of Uncle Vanya and was commissioned in 2008 for the director Matthew Warchus and a starry cast (Ralph Fiennes, Ken Stott) after Warchus triumphed with his Chekhovian reading of Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests at the Old Vic. But time drifted on, things almost but not quite happened - how Chekhovian again - so the producers suggested that Ayckbourn do his own production first.
The result, never mind the change of location from turn-of-the-century Russia to the Lake District in 1935, is close enough to the original to make the change of title slightly misleading. Ayckbourn has sped things up and finessed the vernacular, so we have kettles for samovars, whisky for vodka, even a couple of jokey incidental references to George Bernard Shaw and country house murder mysteries. However, apart from the, I’d suggest, mistaken decision to make Vanya’s lovelorn niece Sonya a 16-year-old schoogirl, this is Uncle Vanya. There are some great jokes, most of them Chekhov’s.
There are also elements of the post-feudal domestic set-up - a country estate run by Vanya, here renamed Marcus - that seem just marginally off in the new setting. But the mood still shifts from gabby inertia to something more fascinatingly forlorn. When the gloves finally come off, Ayckbourn’s production grips.
Before then not all the actors give their characters quite enough inner life. Phil Cheadle, as Dr Ash, is compellingly rakish as his forbidden flirtation with Frances Grey’s stylish Helena bears fruition.
Before then, he looks neither fully engaged nor quite as jaded as he says he is. Matthew Cottle, who plays Marcus, has shown over the past few years that he is a simply brilliant player of Ayckbourn’s losers. Here, he’s skilfully sardonic, but looks too fresh-faced to be a 47-year-old ground down by years of thankless toil. Somehow a Chekhovian loser calls for a slightly larger hinterland.
There’s more pressure than usual on Marcus/Vanya to carry the story’s sadness because, by making Sonya younger, Ayckbourn has deliberately made her unrequited love for Dr Ash less awful. Of course he doesn’t notice her, she’s a kid. And the world is that bit less casually cruel as a consequence. Still, Amy Loughton gives a jolting (in a good way) jolly-hockeysticks reading to Sonya’s final words of stoical gloom.
Grey as Helena, “so bored she can barely stand up”, blossoms as she unfurls her sat-upon sensuality. She, like Terence Booth as her aged academic husband, is really rather decent and really rather selfish too.
So, different context, but still a solid reading of a great play. And, come September, the same cast will also be performing Ayckbourn’s 75th play of his own, Neighbourhood Watch."
(The Times, 14 July 2011)
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