Before seeing these three short plays by Chekhov my only experience of the man’s work was Louis Malle’s sublime Vanya on 42nd Street, a film I saw at the cinema and loved and instantly bought when it was released on video, back in the days when doing such a thing was quite expensive. Yet inexplicably I never sought out any of his other plays until this past weekend, but I won’t make that mistake again as this was such a delight.
Beginning with two folk songs performed in English by Joe Newton and Christie Peto, they’re a gentle and sweet natured affair with the second one made funny as Newton serenades an audience member much to the annoyance of Peto, and it’s an utterly convincing a seduction and a very funny one at that. Then the production starts a proper with the first of three short plays, with the first in the form of a monologue delivered by elderly Russian gentleman Ivan Nyukhin (Paul Robinson) which is supposedly concerning the evils of tobacco, though he digresses throughout and it’s a framing device used to explore the amusing misery of his life.
The second play sees Peto and Newton take to the stage once again, the former as the recently widowed Elena Popova and the latter as Grigory Smirnov, a man her husband owed a substantial amount of money to. Over the course of a short period they go from ranting at each other as they are locked in a stalemate as Elena can’t pay him until the day after tomorrow, whereas Grigory faces death if he doesn’t receive it immediately, to the duo becoming impressed by the other’s fiery nature, and an unusual but extremely funny romance bursts out of the situation. What’s most impressive is how convincing it is, as they begin in a calm but forthright manner, descend in to fury, yet then are soon enamoured and both performances are astonishingly good.
That’s also applicable with the third and final piece, where this time all three actors take to the stage and are soon at each other’s throats. A commentary on the nature of marriage and the way bickering can spiral out of control, hypochondriac Ivan Vasilievich (Newton) is present to ask for permission to marry the daughter of his neighbour Stepan Stepanovich Chubukov (Robinson), which Stepan is initially overjoyed about but after Ivan gets in to a very petty argument over who owns nearby land with his daughter Natalia (Peto) chaos ensues, largely as no one wishes to step down and Ivan is convinced he’ll drop dead at any moment, and just when it looks like everything is resolved another fight breaks out.
The performances are once again fantastic and you could easily be persuaded that it was a completely different set of actors on stage, such are the transformations. Chekhov’s dialogue keeps it consistently amusing but it is the performances which bring the big laughs the majority of the time, and all three bring an impressive comedic physicality to the roles, to the extent that I was preparing myself to call 999 as I feared Newton may collapse dead at any point, though if he had done I’d have to wait to stop laughing before doing so.
Unfortunately this came to an end at the weekend but unlike many a fringe production it deserves to be restaged in the West End, and hopefully very quickly too. Whatever the case if you ever notice that it is to be performed within a hundred miles of your current abode it’s a definite rush rather than wait for tickets situation, as it’s a production packed with intriguing ideas and notions, thoughtful and hilarious dialogue, and stunning performances which will stay with you for a long, long time after it ends.