Uncle Vanya’s a pretty tragic bloke. He’s spent decades tending the unprofitable farm owned by his dead sister’s husband, whilst simultaneously mourning her death and pining after said husband’s hot new wife. Things aren’t all that peachy for his niece either: unrequitedly in love with the dishy local doctor, she and her uncle are caught in a constant desperate oscillation between idolisation and detestation of their proprietor.

Rebecca Night (Yelena), Buffy Davis (Maria), John Hannah (Vanya), Joe Dixon (Astrov) and Alan Francis (Telygin) in Uncle Vanya at St James Theatre. Credit Simon Annand.

Image credit: Simon Annand

So far, so miserable. However Anya Reiss’ rewrite of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya for the One Stage season, which supports emerging producers, turns out to be (somewhat surprisingly) comedy gold. The original characters have been teleported from deepest, darkest Russia to the Yorkshire Dales, farmers’ caps and all, to portray a contemporary story of family betrayal, deceit and romance, with a welcome comic facade. John Hannah (of Sliding Doors and Four Weddings fame) certainly reigns king of physical humour in his characterisation of a drunken depressive. With alcohol predictably representing an escape from the characters’ desperate reality, emotions are heightened and the often larger-than-life moments of humour are nicely juxtaposed to the naturalistic setting of the piece.

Uncle Vanya St James Theatre John Hannah

Image credit: Simon Annand

It is in this naturalism, however, where the play finds its depth. Eerie signs of everyday life,  such as the use of a Henry Hoover and the wearing of a parody Breaking Bad tshirt, catapult the play into the present day, whilst allowing Reiss’ script to act as reflective piece on the meaning of  human relationships.  That said, the play’s modernisation avoids functioning merely as an obvious gunning for pathos, and some bloody good acting saves this production from seeming forced or contrived –  Amanda Hale, in particular, gives a standout performance as Vanya’s niece, a character who is at once deeply vulnerable and hugely funny. Vanya is certainly a tragic bloke, but the layers of comedy and humanity throughout his eponymous play make for a surprisingly hopeful experience.

Rebecca Night (Yelena) in Uncle Vanya at St James Theatre. Credit Simon Annand. (3)

Image credit: Simon Annand

Until 8th November, stjamestheatre.co.uk/events/uncle-vanya/