Theatre review - Dear Uncle, Theatre by the Lake, Keswick

PUBLISHED: 10:13 05 August 2019 | UPDATED: 10:13 05 August 2019

Dominic Gately (Marcus) and Chris Porter (Charles Ash). Photo by Robert Day.

Dominic Gately (Marcus) and Chris Porter (Charles Ash). Photo by Robert Day.

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The penultimate production for the Summer season at Keswick's Theatre by the Lake (TBTL) is Alan Ayckbourn's re-working of Chekhov's classic 'Uncle Vanya', moving the action from Russia to the Lake District. The plot looks at how obsession, in many forms, can take hold and strain relationships.

Jo�lle Brabban and Dominic Gately (Marcus). Photo by Robert Day.Jo�lle Brabban and Dominic Gately (Marcus). Photo by Robert Day.

Generally, you tend to either love Chekhov or loathe him. He straddles a fine line between comedy and melodrama. Mercifully, the TBTL production brings out the former and dampens down the latter. This is at least in part thanks to some wonderfully comic actors currently in-house. Both Dominic Gately - in the title role as Marcus, beloved uncle of Sonya - and Chris Porter - his friend and family doctor, Charles Ash - both portray their characters superbly and the comic timing was perfect. Ash's obsession with saving the environment is also remarkably prescient.

This production is the ensemble piece of the season, bringing together eight of the eleven actors in the company. While this is a reduction from the original nine characters of Chekhov's original, I feel there's still too many (though the resulting choreography of scene changes carried out by the cast was impressive, I'll admit). Eric Potts' character - Julian Touchweston-Smith - is disappointingly inessential. This is a shame as I love Potts' performances in 'The Ladykillers' and 'The Rise and Fall of Little Voice'. Maggie O'Brien's character - Marcus' mother Veronica - also doesn't do a lot, though this actress can sit on the stage and not say a word and yet still cause the audience to roar with laughter.

But these are minor gripes. Overall, the cast work magic with Chekhov's plot and convince us that this play was always intended for Cumbria. Asha Kingsley - the young wife of a retired professor (Patrick Driver) who causes such mayhem in the house - is convincingly sexy as the siren who lures in almost all the men without trying. Patrick driver himself makes us truly understand how damned annoying this professor is and we can't help but sympathise with Marcus' angst against him - although the limp which plagues the professor throughout the play did mysteriously disappear in his final scene…

Asha Kingsley (Helena) and Dominic Gately (Marcus). Photo by Robert Day.Asha Kingsley (Helena) and Dominic Gately (Marcus). Photo by Robert Day.

For me though, I have to admit a little guilt of disloyalty for the actor who shines brightest in this play. Georgina Ambrey, I have noted before, is a superb rising star playing the title role of 'Little Voice' brilliantly. I was therefore very much looking forward to seeing her in 'Dear Uncle'. Alas, Ms Ambrey is ill and her place was taken by Joëlle Brabban. Any fears of this replacement, however, were quickly allayed. Brabban's Sonya was cute and delightful, utterly convincing as a 16-year-old smitten with an older man and wonderfully innocent in her outlook even at the end. There was something about this girl which makes the story make sense and she is very much the glue which binds all the characters together. This is Ms Brabban's first time with TBTL but I do hope it won't be her last. She breathed life onto the stage and out into the audience. I swear I saw little birds and bunnies following behind her in both acts.

Overall, Chekhov is not everyone's cup of tea. Nevertheless, there is something refreshing and relaxing about 'Dear Uncle'. It feels a little like we've briefly stepped into the lives of some bored, rich people and then left again, but do so with a lighter heart than when we went in. If you're a fan of Chekhov you'll love the TBTL production; if you're not, you're still going have a delightful time.

'Dear Uncle' is showing at Theatre by the Lake's Main House until 2 November. To find out more call the Box Office on 017687 74411 or visit www.theatrebythelake.com.

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