Longing – Hampstead Theatre, London – review by Carole Woddis.

What do you get if you cross two Chekhov short stories with a British novelist, in the words of the theatre’s artistic director, working `at the peak of his creative powers’?

Answer: Chekhov lite.  Or rather, Chekhovian overtones underlaid by a modern sensibility.

Is it pastiche, parody or homage?

Longing, William Boyd’s clever, entertaining if slightly bland sleight of hand amalgam of two Chekhov short stories – `My Life’ (1896) and `A Visit to Friends’ (1898) – is certainly something very close to Chekhov and a useful addition to the extraordinarily small repertoire of Chekhov plays.  But has he really added anything fresh or new?

Lizzie Clachan’s iconic wooden summer dacha already alerts us to the play’s famous hinterland, that world of silver birches, frustrated loves and feckless, idle rich blind to their financial shortcomings and the momentous social changes about to sweep them forever from their safe moorings.

Once again we have elegant wives on the verge of meltdown, the parvenu nouveau riche trampling heartlessly all over beloved traditions and a young liberal – in this case the son of an architect – espousing the virtues of hard work and physical labour.  Add in a breathless ingénue and the arrival of a suave Moscovite and old friend to whom inevitably our youthful virgin becomes enamoured and to which he can only respond by running away and you have all the makings of classic Chekhovian tragi-comedy.

It’s all delightfully, tastefully done even to the samovars and buntings being decorously placed by stage management dressed for the part.

With Iain Glen, Tamsin Greig – as Varia, a female doctor still carrying a torch for Glen’s Moscovite lawyer (Kolia) – and John Sessions as a very Glaswegian sounding railway clerk turned developer Dolzikhov – there’s no shortage of expertise or charisma on stage.

But somehow, Longing – as it sounds, replete with thwarted affections – fails to burn on the inside.

There are two moments that almost assume poignancy: Varia’s attempt to steal a kiss from Kolia in order `to have something to remember’ and poor Eve Ponsonby’s Natasha arriving for what she thinks is going to be a late-night assignation with commitment-shy Kolia only to find the summerhouse deserted.  Kolia is hiding behind the silver birches, avoiding her.

Funny? Possibly.  More sad and cruel than anything.

Boyd, who recently turned his own novel, Reckless, into a pulsatingly effective tv film, directed by Hampstead’s own artistic supremo, Edward Hall, showed then how effective he could be at turning the emotional screws.  But it doesn’t quite work here.

Writer-director Nina Raine directs with almost reverential care as if not quite sure whether it is pastiche or parody whilst Boyd’s dialogue catches many familiar Chekhov echoes.

But that strange alchemy of pain and farce so distinctive to the Russian that, with a good production can leave you wretched with tears of mirth and heartbreak simultaneously, never quite achieves lift-off.  It’s a hard balancing act, to be sure.

As one woman said in the loo queue at the interval: `it’s nice, undemanding, you can just let it wash over you.’ Well, actually, no.  Chekhov is so much more.

www.hampsteadtheatre.com.  To April 6.

Carole Woddis © March 15, 2013.