30 March 2013

Longing at the Hampstead Theatre

My first visit to the Hampstead Theatre was prompted by the names Greig, Glen and Chekov.

Tamsin Greig has been in many good things including Black Books, Love Soup, Green Wing and The Archers. Iain Glen is now a major star thanks to Game of Thrones. Chekhov wrote a few classic plays, all of which I like.

Hampstead Theatre is bit of a star too. Built in the sixties it is comfortable and well laid out. The auditorium seats 300 people but still feels intimate and cosy, and there is a bright welcoming reception area with a cafe.

The theatre is also conveniently placed next to Swiss Cottage underground station and that is not too far from the cutely named Finchley Road & Frognal station on the London Overground, where I arrived from Richmond.

Longing is something of a cheat but an acceptable one. Chekhov wrote only a few plays but dozens of short stories and Longing is the merger of two of these. The joins are obvious, i.e. there are clearly two stories being told,  but they are sewn together neatly and effectively.

In familiar Chekhov territory we find a Russian country estate that has fallen on hard times.and he family face ruin, largely due to the husband's unwise investments. Tasmin Greig, a doctor (another Chekhov regular), is visiting the family and they are joined by Iain Glen another childhood friend who is now a successful Moscow lawyer. The family hope that he can find some way out of their predicament.

He tries to help and while he does so feelings develop between him and two of the girls. The possible love story between Tasmin and Iain is the main story.

The summer house Glen is living in needs painting and so we are introduced to the two men whose job this is. One is a young man who is entitled to a higher station in life but who wants to live as a labour and to do proper work.

He is thwarted in this by being engaged to the coarse daughter of a newly-rich man (John Sessions) who intends to buy the estate.

The young man discovers that one of the daughters heard some of his poetry once and he begins to think that perhaps his impending marriage is not what he wants. This relationship is the second story.

The two stories share the theme and Longing is a good summary of that.

This is Chekhov so we get lots of examples of the tensions between the classes, town and country, and new and old money. What is missing though is the expected gravitas of decline. Indeed we get the opposite and the financially inept husband is cheery throughout. Like Billy Bunter he is always expecting something to turn up.

I liked the play a lot. Not as much as a genuine Chekhov but quite a lot none the less. What I liked even more was the acting. The two stories required a few strong characters to carry them and this it had. Everybody in the cast played their part very well and the rousing reception from the sold-out house was well deserved.

Longing was well thought out and delivered. Everything from the theatre to the set to the direction to the acting worked and worked well. The script was good too, it was just a shame that it had the Chekhov name to try to live up to.

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