When this Chekhov adaptation by David Mamet opened in Boston in 1988 its conventional approach surprised audiences expecting his usual brusque vernacular. But focusing on quiddities of character this version had its finest flowering with a series of rehearsed New York workshop performances directed by Andre Gregory, lovingly filmed by Louis Malle in the then ruined New Amsterdam Theater.
Hugh Fraser’s revival with actors in casual clothes clearly draws its inspiration from Malle’s Vanya On 42nd Street. But this first London staging in the faded splendour of Wilton’s Music Hall never quite transmutes from rehearsal informality to the ensemble intimacy of the movie.
Costume has much to do with it. Ronan Vibert as Astrov gives a fine portrayal of laid-back Slavic passion combined with a keen intelligence and humanity. But in sweatshirt and jeans, lacking riding boots, it hardly suggests a saddle-weary district doctor neglecting his patients.
The exception is Rachael Stirling, a disturbingly beautiful Yelena costumed in a black, close-fitting dress: not the serenely composed wife bored with life, but an emotionally charged creature, with haunted eyes and husky voice, a fresh and intense interpretation worth crossing London to see, if sometimes lacking vocal energy.
Colin Stinton offers the jauntiest of Vanyas, angry mockery replacing melancholic despair, a transatlantic comic turn that undermines the laughter he would otherwise garner from his farcical pursuit of the Professor, pistol in hand.
As the lovelorn Sonya, Catherine Cusack plays a crop-haired gamin waif in blue jeans, her best moments in downstage, heart-to-heart conversation with Yelena. But the evening’s strongest performance comes from veteran Philip Voss who powerfully suggests the Professor’s pains and torments of old age while alone among this cast, winging his words to the back row of the stalls.