2 May 2011

Chekhov in Hell at the Soho Theatre

I have been rather successful over the last year or so in seeing good innovative plays in small theatres and so it proved again with Chekhov in Hell at the Soho Theatre.

This was my first time at the Soho Theatre too though I had walked past its nondescript frontage many times, especially when I worked in Soho in the early 90s. In marked contrast to most of the theatres I've been to recently this one is not buried underground but is up on the third floor then sinks down like a lecture theatre. It certainly does not look purpose-built.

There is a little theatre bar that just about lives up to its name but is certainly the smallest theatre bar that I have been to. Not a big problem as I was happy not to have a drink and did not have long to wait before the doors opened.

There was a minor scramble for the best seats when the doors opened (my definition of a small theatre is one with free seating) but I am well practised at this and managed to get a seat in the front row. In the middle.

I like minimalist sets as great plays do not need much in the way of props and too many or too extravagant props can detract from what you are meant to be watching.

Chekhov in Hell has a wonderfully minimalist set. For most of the play there is just a chair or two on the stage and sometimes there is nothing at all.

The minimalism extends to the costumes and while the small cast each plays several roles (apart from Chekhov) they do so in the same clothes. And I mean clothes rather than costumes as the actors are dressed normally.

That simple approach works well as the superb cast are able to convey the different characters that they play through just voices and mannerisms. It's a joy to witness.

The play takes a look at modern life through the eyes of Anton Chekhov who awakes from a coma after a hundred years and after being introduced to his closest living relative, a chavy single mother, he escapes in bemusement in to the world of today.

The story then evolves as Chekhov moves from one scene to another each rich with comedy as the slightest weaknesses in modern life are exposed cruelly.

There are too many scenes running thick and fast after each other for me to do anything other than pick out a few.

There was the self-help group, The Survivors, who were somewhat less than helpful to each other. A gay designer who explains that fashion is just men's way of proving that women are stupid. A Customer Support Officer who provides very ineffectual and patronising support, e.g. offering a hug.

Chekhov also gets inadvertently involved with the Russian Mafia and that theme makes the play a story rather than just a collection of disjointed scenes.

Chekhov in Hell is some of the best fun that I've had at the theatre for ages. It is genuinely funny throughout, pointing an irreverent mirror at ourselves, and is acted with aplomb. Superb stuff.

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