Much has been made of Patrick Marber's 'writer's block' which has meant that his new play THE RED LION is his first since 2006. Well it would appear the genie is out of the bottle now and residing at the National Theatre.
His play about semi-professional football THE RED LION is currently playing at the Dorfman auditorium, he had a hand in sprucing up Farquhar's THE BEAUX' STRATAGEM at the Olivier and now he is featured at the Lyttelton with his adaptation of Turgenyev's 'A Month In The Country' here re-named THREE DAYS IN THE COUNTRY. Marber obviously is too busy to write a whole month!
I had seen a production before back in 1988 with Celia Imrie, Helen Fraser, Faith Kent and Sophie Thompson but could remember little about it but that it featured silly people falling in love with all the wrong people but this production (directed also by Marber) peels back layers to reveal the sad, lonely people behind the comic situations.
Natalya is married to Arkadi, a rich landowner, and they have a loving son Kolya but she longs for something more, something out of touch, a secret, exciting experience. She flirts with the family friend Rakitin who hangs around primarily in the hope that she will finally take him seriously but Natalya's dream of excitement arrives in the shape of Belyaev, a young tutor for Natalya's pretty ward Vera. But of course, he is also the object of affection for Vera too...
The initial frivolous nature turns more serious as Natalya tries to make her wishes become reality and her actions start to impact on those around her. Sometimes you shouldn't wish too hard...
I must admit that after a stressful day at work the first act rather floored me and I found myself drifting but then found that the effect of Owen drifting too made me concentrate and focus, and I like what I saw very much. Marber's adaptation is crisp and clean, the relationships quickly established among the large cast of characters and at times it was obvious that this was the same writer as CLOSER as the characters found it very easy to say what they hated about those who they are supposed to love.
The real surprise of the show is the abstract set by Mark Thompson, a bare stage - and the Lyttelton is a large stage - with a set that mostly consists of see-through plastic walls and a free-floating red door with the cast seated around the back of the stage, ready to make their entrances if and when. Neil Austin's subtle lighting also contributes towards the overall delicate feel of the production.
The big casting coup of the show is to have tv names John Simm as Rakitin and Mark Gatiss as snobbish local doctor Shpigelsky who becomes embroiled in Natalya's attempts to steer Vera away from her tutor.
Simm usually leaves me cold but here he was excellent, giving a vinegary performance as Rakitin, knowing he will get nowhere with Natalya but hanging around just in case. Gatiss also gave a delightfully characterful performance as the disdainful doctor, all too aware of his shortcomings, who after careful consideration proposes marriage to Lizaveta, the plain companion of Arkadi's mother.
This delightful scene was superbly played by Gatiss and Debra Gillett, a comedy of embarrassment as painful to endure as anything Mike Leigh could have thought up - especially when Gatiss' back gives out making him hobble and crawl around the stage while proposing! The cast also bristles with marvellous performances: Lily Sacofsky is a real find as Vera who finds her first vision of love is flawed, Gawn Grainger as a gruff German tutor, Cherrelle Skeete as Katya, the family maid also on the lookout for love and escape and it was nice to see Lynn Farleigh as Arkadi's disapproving mother.
But for me the performance of the evening was Amanda Drew as Natalya. This is a role that could easily have been given to a starrier name but Drew effortlessly pinpoints the character's restlessness, wanting more out of life than just being a wife or mother and in particular, her final scenes of distress in the face of the collapse of her dreams was wonderfully judged and more effective for seemingly coming out of nowhere.
Despite being a bit noddy at the start of the play, I was won over by the exquisite performances and Marber's back-to-basics production. I am thinking a second visit may just be on the cards.... It is highly recommended for anyone who would like an intelligent but moving evening.