Chekhov's Shorts

Thu 16th – Sat 18th February 2012

reviews

Rebecca Loxton

at 02:12 on 17th Feb 2012

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This play brings seven slices of comic Chekhov to Lady Margaret Hall in one flawless performance. The group performs a handful of the Russian master’s one act plays and a few of his short stories for an audience that laughed delightedly throughout.

Chekhov himself did not like plays unless they were short, remarks the narrator at the beginning of this selection of Chekhov’s works for stage and page. As with the short story form, Chekhov accomplishes the form of the one-act play (each lasting a mere few minutes) to perfection. A tight storyline, convincing characterisation and witty dialogue are complemented by the commendable acting ability of this student cast.

Particular highlights include "The Alien Corn," the second of Chekhov’s shorts that the group has brought to life in the elegant Simpkins Theatre in the grounds of the college. The play portrays a meal taken on a country estate between a Russian landowner and his insulted French guest, the former tutor of his children who has lived with the family for thirty years. In a convincing Gallic accent, Rory Fazan’s character lets himself become increasingly wound up with jabs about his country’s national spirit character, intellect and, the dagger to the Frenchman’s heart, French gastronomy. Another highlight of this collection is the monologue entitled "The Evils of Tobacco," in which the downtrodden husband of the proprietress of a girls’ boarding-school recounts his life of missed opportunity, laments the petty behaviour of his daughters and ruminates on the significance of the number thirteen in powerful, comic fashion. The part of disgruntled husband and father is expertly embodied by actor Ed Barr-Sim, whose mimed performance in silent vignette The Sneeze is also noteworthy. Similarly, Lauren Hyett’s performance as a landowner’s widow in The Bear is comic, convincing and accomplished.

These comic snippets are accompanied during scene changes by the music from a live string band, which provides a fitting backdrop to the polished performance on stage.

The only criticism is one which has no bearing on the actors or the overall performance, but is rather a fault of the production company, who bizarrely asks the audience to leave the theatre during the interval, simply to make minor changes to the furniture on the set, replacing drawing-room furniture with a lectern. This quirk aside, the performance as a whole is a faultless one, and represents the best of Oxford’s student theatre scene.

If you’re a fan of Chekhov, of comedy, of vaudeville and farce, "Chekhov’s Shorts" is a play not to be missed. Snap up a ticket for this satisfying serving of Russian drama.

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Daniel Malcolm

at 10:02 on 17th Feb 2012

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This gallimaufry of mimes, monologues, observational satire and slap-stick - seemingly linked by little more than the physical defects of many of the protagonists - is disjointedly and disorientatingly hilarious. Expect to be lectured at, sneezed upon, threatened at gun point, and through it all - made to laugh very heartily.

Ah yes Chekhov - Russian playwright, I should say...hmm uumm... sorry I get terribly nervous when the deadline's close you know - the OTR editor can be well... well a bit like my girlfriend... terribly unforgiving...... in fact you know... sometimes I wish I could just run away to a wide open field and stand there like a telegraph pole looking up at the moon.

So the eponymous lecturer of "The Lecturer on Tobacco" might digress if he were an OTR reviewer (though of course Ed Barr-Sim with the rolling verbal gait of a polished comedian is an awful lot funnier). And so Chekhov likes to upset the apple-cart of his audience's expectations plunging his characters and the onlooker into crisis and turmoil.

Like the dry beginning of "Lecture on Tobacco" ("we can safely say tobacco is of vegetable origin"), many of these sketches seem at first conventional, ordinary and even a little boring. Chekhov playfully encourages you to think that you have sized up the characters and that they've sized up each other. The actors too with deliberately heavy-handed emphasis on the stereotypical limitations of their characters drive you to despair that a sketch can go anywhere interesting. And then when you think you have weighed up the dramatic possibilities of a pedestrian plot which seems to be ambling towards a dead-end... the sketch suddenly dives off-road into an undergrowth of miraculous - but strangely plausible - twists and turns. No one could accuse Chekhov's humour of being predictable.

Not only is this discombobulating for an audience; it's difficult for actors who must change their spots even more often than they change roles. A brilliant cast make the surreal character transformations seem almost seamless - for the most part pulling off conflicted - at times almost schizophrenic characters with aplomb. In "The proposal", Arty Froushan, initially playing a timid suitor unexpectedly explodes into rage and almost dies of apoplexy (physical and mental disintegration go hand in hand) in a petty land dispute with his soon to be wife - and in the most topsy-turvy sketch of all - Sam Carter is transmogrified from boorishly persistent creditor (he only breaks off his demands for money to ask for vodka) to love-struck suitor of a supercilious widow.

And as if these dramatic gymnastics weren't enough, some of the actors play four roles in an evening: Lauren Hyett seemed to have a closet-full of personas - as she arpeggio-ed up and down the social scale - morphing with ease from an uppity widow with eyes of Medusian scorn - to a colloquial, conversational cart driver, who has a smug joke at the expense of her inspector general.

Not all the sketches are that sophisticated. "The Sneeze" is big - and has an impressive range - not to mention splash-zone - but the sketch adds up to little more than a slap-stick attempt at recovery by the sneezer to the accompaniment of a string quartet (who sounded like they had been at the vodka - whether for effect or no, it set the right tone). This could well fall rather flat but for the exquisite expressions of Rory Fazan - (they would make Rowan Atkinson - one of the play's first English performers - proud). Words can't conjure the mixture of cowering horror - and consummately Russian rage - as he cringes in anticipation of another snotty sneeze from the man behind.

Surprisingly perhaps for a translated play - the verbal as well as the facial expressions are delightfully and miscellaneously quirky. The script lives up to the melodrama of the Russian passions being taken out on props like the struts of a poor chair (which looked like it had been onstage with Ozzy Osbourne by the end) -fingers point, eyes flash and scurrilous accusations abound: "Schemer", "land-grabber" "et-cetera-et-cetera".

If you go to "Chekhov's Shorts" complacently - then expect like the Inspector-General (who discovers that the inspected know more about him than he does about them), to find the sketches strike uncomfortably close to home... you may come out as disconcerted as you are amused.

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