Vanya at Duke of York’s Theatre review: an acting masterclass from the mercurial Andrew Scott

 (Marc Brenner)
(Marc Brenner)

London theatregoers have known for years there’s much more to Andrew Scott than Sherlock’s Moriarty and Fleabag’s hot priest, but this one-man Vanya is a revelation and a sensation. Writer Simon Stephens transposes Chekhov’s tragicomedy to a 20th-century Irish farm: the story and the pathos is preserved, the characters cast in a new light.

Scott plays all of them, differentiating men and women, young and old, with slight changes of vocal register and body language. His performance is wry, confiding, often archly funny, briefly very sexy and sometimes wrenchingly sad. It’s a masterclass in actorly skill, in tone and pacing. Scott, Stephens, director Sam Yates and designer Rosanna Vize all have equal billing as co-creators.

Scott ambles onto a brightly lit, scumbled set dotted with tables, chairs, a piano and a kitchen sink, and smirks at us while turning the house lights off, on, then off again. We’re made complicit: later he will address us directly or roll his eyes at some plot point or character Chekhov or Stephens has neglected. For now, he lights a cigarette and instantly he’s housekeeper Maureen, flirting with visiting doctor Michael.

Some knowledge of the original is useful, though Stephens replicates its yearning dynamics faithfully. Downtrodden Vanya (here renamed Ivan) and his niece Sonya slave on the family potato farm to support her pompous film-maker father, Alexander: Sonya’s mother was Vanya’s late, beloved sister, and the farm was her dowry. Now Sonya loves charismatic, self-destructive Doctor Michael “more than my own father and mother”: she bites a dishtowel in shame as she says this.

 (Marc Brenner)
(Marc Brenner)

The doctor and Ivan both covet Alexander’s glamorous, languorous second wife, Helena. Only one of them is briefly requited, in a scene that sees Scott claw his own short-sleeved linen shirt off to surprisingly erotic effect.  He evokes the female characters with great subtlety – Helena just by the way he toys with a chain around his neck. The whispered, passionate moments are so spellbinding I didn’t dare ease my stiff hip.

Some technical business that works brilliantly on stage will sound awful when described here. Vanya is initially identified by his sunglasses and a handheld device that makes cartoon sound effects, Sonya by that dishtowel, for instance.

But Scott and Yates have a cinematic nose for changes in focus and perspective. As Doctor Michael, Scott chugs vodka with vehement self-loathing: then, alchemically, he becomes Sonya, seeing in the empty bottle that she’s lost him. When Ivan is finally stirred to anger against Alexander, Scott actually looks like two different people.

Ok, when he sits on the floor and sings Jaques Brel’s If You Go Away, invention threatens to tip into tricksiness. But this show isn’t a vanity project, a gimmick or a rip-off of Chekhov: it’s a distillation of his compassion and humanity that creates something new. Stephens, Yates and Vize deserve massive kudos; but it’s Scott’s mercurial talent that makes it transfixing.

Duke of York’s Theatre, to October 21; buy tickets here