Choosing a title for your play must be a bit like negotiating a minefield. It’s a wonder Princess Diana never got involved.
Unless you’re Ernie Wise or Alan Ayckbourn you’ve probably spent months, possibly years, crafting, polishing and honing it. And surely then dithering over a name by which it will be known for perpetuity.
A very good play with an iffy title may, possibly, not matter too much. But a bad play with the wrong moniker can give critics a field day.
The National’s Damned by Despair saw the vultures circling, but even those who generally come up with half-decent plays aren’t risk averse. Did O’Neill have any reservations when he named his lengthy Long Day’s Journey into Night? Did Ayckbourn when he penned A Chorus of Disapproval? Or did Mike Leigh (who famously reveals the titles of his plays at the eleventh hour), worry he might be handing it to sub-editors on a plate when he opted for Grief?
Then there’s the upcoming Tony Award-winning Broadway musical; if it doesn’t work in the West End, might Once be more than enough? Was a Hollywood star chancing more than her arm declaring her cabaret Debbie Reynolds: Alive and Fabulous?
Of course the Whingers elicited endless pleasure from Mike Bartlett’s marvellous Cock and it seems we haven’t quite let go of it yet. And even though we are yet to put pen to paper, we’ve still put much consideration into naming our own long-gestating stage masterpiece. Working title: Balls.
Adapting two of Chekhov‘s short stories for the stage William Boyd (who is writing the next James Bond novel) has come up with a suitable title. Aren’t all of Mr C’s plays about Longing? That’s as long as the the audience isn’t longing for it to end. We were.
It probably doesn’t matter really as the entire run is sold out. Hardly surprising with its starry cast which includes: Tamsin Greig, Iain Glen, John Sessions, Natasha Little and Alan Cox. Maybe the Hampstead Theatre is anticipating another West End transfer.
There’s a feeling that boxes are being ticked. A country estate on the edge of ruin. Check. Unrequited passions. Check. Someone wishing to return to Moscow. Check. Silver birches. Check. And of course a samovar. If there was a Chekhovian chestnut unexplored, then we missed it. You can practically smell the troikas.
And yes, there’s a family retainer. In fact there seems to be a host of servants and workers; no wonder Sergei (Cox) is on the edge of ruin. Appearances suggest more retainers than an orthodontist’s surgery.
But as well as keeping the economy buoyant by employing people, Sergei has also lost his money in a couldn’t-fail-to-make-money-out-of-the-’Orientals’ scheme recommended to him by a fellow punter in a brothel. As you do.
Ms Greig plays Varia, a doctor friend with a penchant for ahead-of-their-day filter-tipped ciggies. Greig, as ever, doesn’t disappoint. She’s immensely touching and can stare poignantly into the distance with the best of them yet still make you laugh. She harbours feelings for Kolia (Glen), a visiting Moscow lawyer who’s so strangely indecisive you’d never leave your briefs with him. Though presumably Varia would.
Eva Ponsonby is an effective Natasha and Glen a suitably dithery Varia, but the biggest problem is that some of the other actors’ performances seem at odds with each other. Perhaps director Nina Raine (who wrote the splendid Tribes) will pull them together, but at this preview some were rather annoyingly shouty or give such curiously pitched performances that they don’t seem to gell together. Let’s not even start on some of the accents.
Things suddenly picked up just before the interval when some drama was threatened, but it had been a long time coming. Act 2 is only 38 minutes. If the interval was removed the play would run at just over 1 hour 40 minutes, but, understandably, money must made at the bar: Phil was happy to help with that. Still, the break gave a chance to eavesdrop on other conversations, “so-so” and “miscast” were nonchalantly bandied around. Not just us then.
The production values, including an impressive dilapidated summerhouse set (Lizzie Clachan) and the lighting (James Farncombe) are rather fine. And there’s real grass from the Wildflower Turf Company enabling one to quash ennui by wondering just how they maintain it.
Perhaps it would have been better if the whole thing had been done as a send up. But that’s already been done in this hilariously spot on ‘digested read‘ of Longing from John Crace in The Guardian. If you have a ticket and read it before you go, you’ll find it hard to take any of it at all seriously. It says all you need to know. So, perhaps Mr Crace should shoulder some blame.
And no, Crace wasn’t making it up. There really are characters in Longing called Kleopatra and Radish.