'Longing' review or 'Yawn'
'Longing', William Boyd (Based on 2 short stories by Anton Chekhov)
Hampstead Theatre, Thursday 7th March 2013
Written for The Ham & High
To describe 'Longing' as a first play – as Edward Hall does in the Hampstead programme notes – is pretty cheeky. To label it a launchpad for a 'new' playwright is downright insolent. 'Longing' is no such thing.
After all, novelist William Boyd is well and truly launched and 'Longing' hardly represents his first foray into playwriting. Instead, Boyd has affectionately stitched together two of Chekhov's short stories, 'My Life' and 'A Visit to Friends'. It is a decent tapestry job but the voice is all Chekhov's, even if it is a little muffled.
Nina Raine's production is predictable and a little stilted, stuck somewhere between a full-blown tragedy and a grotesque comedy. The stage effects feel over-familiar; Lizzie Clachan's crumbling summerhouse recalls countless Chekhov productions, birds tweet with alarming regularity and, at choice dramatic moments, leaves drop from the heavens.
Thank god for the cast, who find some humour and poignancy in an otherwise clunky affair. Iain Glen charms as Moscow lawyer Sergei, although his deliberate delivery feels a tad over-pronounced within the context of this 'playlette'.
The comic characters fare better, tapping into some of that Chekhovian colour and flamboyance. William Postlethwaite convinces as weak-minded idealist, Misail, who picnics in the country whilst determinedly living the simple life. Catrin Stewart is gloriously grating as Misail's betrothed, as screeching and self-entitled as any of today's reality TV stars.
But it is Tamsin Greig, as 'dried out doctor Varia', who is easily the night's most watchable performer. Greig possesses the same qualities as Chekhov's original short stories; that brilliant ability to speak volumes with just the tiniest word or gesture. When Varia hugs unrequited love, Sergei, her face crumbles and – for just a second – a whole lifetime of lonely weeping stretches out in front of us.