Anton Chekhov's classic play Uncle Vanya gets relocated to rural Scotland in the 1960s and becomes Uncle Varick. I have to admit at this early point in the review that, although I know of the original work, I have never read the original play, or watched it performed. This of course does mean that some of the subtle transposition of characters from the original source material to this play are lost on me. It does, however, mean that this review lets Uncle Varick stand on his own two feet without any other references and expectations to take into account.
This, like all good theatre, is a performance that needs only a good script and good actors to deliver the story. The cast is small and features
Uncle Varick (Jimmy Chisholm)
Sandy Sheridan - Varick's Ex brother-in-law (John Stahl)
Shona - Sandy's daughter / Varick's niece (Ashley Smith)
Elaine - Sandy's much younger new wife (Selina Boyack)
Mhairi - Varick's mother (Anne Kidd)
Michael - the Doctor (George Anton)
Willie John - Handyman (Dave Anderson)
Kirsty Morag - Housekeeper (Maureen Carr)
an Estate Worker (Steven Scott Fitzgerald)
This is basically a story of family tensions, lost opportunities, unfulfilled lives and growing family resentments.
After many years of living in London and being hailed as a great reviewer of arts and hailed as a cultural icon/saviour of the arts, Sandy Sheridan returns to his remote Scottish estate. With him on his return he brings all his pretentious London and arts circle airs and graces and his very attractive and much younger wife, Elaine. Rural life in the middle of nowhere is not something that excites Elaine. In fact it is probably the only thing that she finds more boring than her marriage to Sandy. Elaine does, however, excite Uncle Varick who is deeply in love with her and sees her as the only salvation in his up to now life of unfulfilled dreams and hopes. Sadly, these feelings are not reciprocated.
Sandy's estate is typical of one of the period generating income from a variety of sources - including a small brewery. The estate is however what has largely funded his London lifestyle for many years. Sandy's daughter lives and works on the estate in a close family and working relationship with her Uncle Varick.
At the beginning of the play we meet Willie John playing us a Beatles song (Norwegian Wood - one of a few throughout the night) and we are introduced to the first scene featuring Dr Michael and Housekeeper Kirsty Morag at breakfast. Michael has been called out to deal with an ill Sandy the night before but is less than pleased to find out that after travelling 40 miles to visit his patient he is not now needed. Michael has a passion though, and that passion is trees and saving the original environment that he feels is being destroyed and lost forever. In another era he would probably have been an eco warrior. As the play unfolds Michael becomes involved in an eternal love triangle. Shona has been in love with him since she left school and returned home but he is unaware of this. After drinking a bit too much one night Shona lets some of these feelings slip to the doctor. On a rare moment of bonding the next day, Shona asks her stepmother Elaine to find out exactly how the doctor feels about her. Sadly, it is Elaine and not Shona that the doctor has feelings for, and to make matters worse the love sick Uncle Varick intrudes on them both at a most inopportune moment.
Things come to a head in the family when they are all called to a meeting by Sandy who announces that he plans to sell the estate. The only problem with this idea is that Sandy does not actually own the estate outright and cannot sell it without his daughter's permission. The very mention of the sale though is the breaking point for Uncle Varick and decades of resentment to Sandy come out into the open.
This is a performance where we get to know the inner feelings of the characters and there is enough humour amongst the deep emotions to allow a talented assembly of actors who know their craft plenty of scope to bring their individual characters to life.
Life finally calms down and Sandy and Elaine return to London. Uncle Varick and everyone else return to their own lives of continual disappointment. The final monologue of the original play is tenderly spoken by Shona as she consoles an unhappy Uncle Varick and accepts both his fate and her fate in this life to work, toil and disappointment in the hope of a better one in heaven.
Everyone on stage put in fine performances tonight, but as you would expect from the title, great performances from Uncle Varick and his niece.
This is at heart a very simple story, and like all good stories it needed nothing more than very simple but very good set design and this play had both.
This is very much a coming home to the King's Theatre for John Byrne. Not only is his much acclaimed play starting its run this week at the theatre, but a photographic exhibition of the amazing dome that he has painted for the theatre starts this week too.
Review by Tom King