Cooper’s London

Fearless Prediction:
Arts Venue Discovery

This seems to be the year of Chekhov‘s favorite uncle. And as if it were not enough that New York has two hot-ticket Uncle Vanyas (see John Branch’s post of 12 June), I have just attended the new captivating production in London at The Print Room at 34 Hereford Road, a stone’s throw from the Portobello Road and Notting Hill. (Yes, it was a printing plant in its original life.) Lucy Bailey and Anda Winters are the artistic directors

The discovery here is the venue itself, open about 18 months now and hosting not just plays (pretty much a 100% success rate with critics and audiences so far), but concerts, art exhibitions, etc. It’s a small community venue – no bar, no restaurant, barely a toilet, but with each ticket you will be given a chit for a discount across the road at a rather good Steak and Oyster Bar!

The space itself is flexible and endlessly reconfigurable, and comfortably cozy. Yet, like Wonderland, it seems to grow. For this Uncle Vanya, about 85 chairs were ranged along the four walls in two rows and everything else was acting space, with an evocative and minimalist set and props.

The production was adapted—with great success—by Mike Poulton, who is obsessed with making sure that people discover Vanya as a comedy, and was directed by Lucy Bailey; it has played a sellout run with a recent reprise. The acting was concentrated, the actors full of energy. You lived the experience with them (sometimes having to be careful not to trip them).

Iain Glen, William Houston, Caroline Blakiston, Lucinda Millward and David Yelland were the five principals, and each one was vividly the Chekhov character he or she was playing. Glen has done some amazing things in the West End but is now probably best known for playing Sir Richard Carlisle (the early prototype for Rupert Murdoch?) in Downton Abbey. But above all, the wonderful William Houston was playing Astrov and I’d bet you came away from the play wanting to see him again.

But everyone inhabited his or her part with complete conviction–it was a true ensemble piece, and the emotions they were suppressing and with which they then exploded were brilliantly conveyed. You could enjoy the acting for its own sake as it went along; but you’d be analysing the characters and ambiguities for days thereafter. Could Stanislavky have done it with more truth or love? I ended up wanting to hug the entire cast.

It was a hot night in a small place and the audience was a bit po of face, I fear, being British and trained to think that you shouldn’t laugh at serious stuff. But even they let go with surprised hilarity at the most unexpected places because the directing, conceptualisation and acting were so good that, for once, all the black humour was there for the taking. It was also amazingly compassionate. Even the most self-obsessed, solipsistic and egotistical aspects of some of the characters commanded pity–and those laughs. The ending was as poignant as I have ever seen it. I wonder if they could transfer it to the West End and give it extra life? It deserves a wide audience.

Co-founders Bailey and Winters have come up with a real winner; not only in this production but also in the whole approach of this new off-off-West End venue. What is being done at The Print Room is a gift to the community and I wish it a long and happy life. It crackles with energy and promise.The summer will be taken up with concerts. If you can’t get to London right now, get on their mailing list. Given their track record so far, I would go see anything there simply expecting it to be worth the effort.

I predict that The Print Room will be one of the most dynamic and important places to experience the best of London’s theatre and arts scene. Meantime, explore their web site and their future: Print Room

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