Man, it must be great to live in Hampstead: round my neck of the woods there are still blokes, apparently unaware of the advent of downloading, who persist in trying to flog DVDs of Hollywood blockbusters. Hop over to NW3, though, and you’ll get the celebrated author William Boyd trying to flog you a knock-off Chekhov play.
Okay, that’s not totally fair. Adapted by Boyd from a pair of Chekhov’s short stories (‘My Life’ and ‘A Visit to Friends’), given a handsome production by rising star Nina Raine and well-performed by a cast headed by Tamsin Greig and Iain Glen as a pair of star-crossed singles, ‘Longing’ is a loving and respectful tribute to the Russian titan.
Nonetheless, tribute is what this is: a series of Chekhovian tropes – fading rural aristocracy, love gone awry, quietly thwarted dreams, boozy, feckless patriarch, late nineteenth-century Russian setting – stitched together with skill and care to create a fair but slightly contrived approximation of a Chekhov play. Yes, these are Chekhov’s characters and stories. But Chekhov didn’t write ‘Longing’, and it feels like Boyd is afraid to put any of himself into it.
Chekhov lite, then, but done well. The cast is excellent: Glen’s dashing bachelor Kolia is just the right mix of rugged magnetism and terrible weakness, and Greig is coolly charismatic as spinster doctor Varia. There is excellent comic support from Alan Cox as self-deceiving piss-artist Sergei and John Sessions as the vigorously vulgar nouveau riche Dolzikhov. Plus, not all the imitation-Russian stuff comes up short: Lizzie Clachan’s summerhouse set is a thing of such bucolic perfection that the Russian tourist board might want to think about putting in a generous offer when the run ends. Andrzej Lukowski