Review – Ivanov, Donmar West End (Wyndham’s Theatre), with Kenneth Branagh

Friday 7 November 2008


While the rest of the world was holding its breath to find out if McCain had had his chips and the moose huntin’ maverick was back at Walmart, the West End Whingers were bating their collective, slightly wheezy breath with a far more pressing concern: would Ivanov be yet another success in their consecutive list of theatrical junkets?

Would it be assigned a place on The Bagnold Barometer or be put on their list of theatrical abasement: The Fram Scale?

Phil’s now enjoyed an unprecedented eight trips to the theatre, the only thorn in his proverbial side being An Ideal Husband (but since that was in the provinces it doesn’t seem fair to include it and spoil his extraordinary run).

Are the Whingers losing their modus operandi, their raison d’être? Will they have to start searching for a new soubriquet ? Why have they stopped writing in English?

Michael Grandage‘s new production of Ivanov held particular significance for the potentially erstwhile Whingers. They weren’t attending to see the first of the Donmar’s West End (Wyndham’s Theatre) season, nor because it stars Kenneth Branagh, nor even because the show is so successful that that entire run is now sold out to the point that people are prepared to stand at the back of the stalls for two-and-a-half hours to see it.

No, the Whingers were there solely to witness their first ever mention in a West End theatre programme. Under the section “Web Watch: Can Anyone be a critic?” the Whingers are described as “bitchy and irreverent” and other things which modesty (and our libel lawyers who have been instructed on the matter) prevent us mentioning. Still, the Whingers bested the un-bylined author who proclaims that “their preview verdicts get in ‘under the wire’ of the media who have to wait for press nights”. Ha! Ivanov is two-thirds of the way through its run! Ha! Who’s laughing now, eh?

Andrew couldn’t wait to open it. Taking his front row seat he tore open the programme with an urgency usually only seen at the call for “last orders”. Squinting at the piece through his magnifying glass he read it out proudly before announcing, “That’s it. We can go now”.

Unfortunately the lights were already dimming and it was too late to escape for a self-congratulatory drink.

So we can report that Ivanov is quite typical Chekhov – there’s a lot of moping about and people whining about wishing they were somewhere else. This was also true of the characters on the stage.

Although Act 1 was distinctly un-gripping, Act 2 was better and good enough to get the Whingers back after the interval. It got grippier and grippier and by Act 4 the Whingers were having a whale of a time.

kenneth-branagh-as-ivanovNikolai Ivanov (Branagh) is a scientific farmer whose once Jewish wife of five years Anna Petrovna (Gina McKee) is dying of TB and needs to go to the Crimea to recover. But Ivanov is in debt to the tune of 9000 roubles (which is presumably quite a lot of money) and doesn’t seem to care much anyway. To be fair, in Tom Stoppard‘s translation it seems quite clear that Ivanov is having some kind of breakdown, an interpretation largely supported by his suicide at the end of the play (warning: that was a plot spoiler).

Nevertheless, Ivanov is pretty unsympathetic for a central character. Indeed, Ivanov is scant on characters on which an audience member may confidently hang his or her emotional hat. And, god knows, there are enough of them. 19 to be precise.

The problem is compounded by the fact that Branagh is a strange actor, managing to be starry yet uncharismatic at the same time. He put Phil more in mind of a supply teacher from Woking than a tortured Russian agronomist (although, having said that, we’re having trouble imagining what a tortured Russian agronomist might look like). Andrew was more impressed – not least because Branagh eclipses the usually impressive real tears of others on the stage by producing real snot. But the expressed idea of Ivanov as a “hand me down Hamlet” resolutely refused to lift the Whingers’ engagement level above “indifference” to the character.

Anyway, Phil was happy to take his eyes off Branagh’s declamatory performance and watch the other players on the stage. And boy, is there lots of quality acting going on elsewhere to look at; so much so that Phil actually managed to entirely miss the death of one of the major characters because there was so much else going on.

No matter, he was having a road to Damascus moment: like his conversion to the church of Simon Russell Beale, he’s now completely sold on Gina McKee as the tubercular Anna Petrovna, despite having previously not liked her (the change began with The Lover and The Collection at the Comedy). Anyone who can produce a constant stream of real tears and listen to music wistfully rasping “They’re playing ‘The Little Finch’ ” in a breathy Lindsay Duncan tone and not come over as mawkish gets his thumbs up.

Ivanov Star turns too from Sylvestra Le Touzel and Lucy Briers (both left) and particularly from the new Simon Russell Beale, Kevin R McNally (where did that extra ‘R” come from?).

Malcolm Sinclair turns in an enjoyable Shabelsky despite having to yearn to be in Moscow – now where have we heard that before?

What else? Well, top marks to designer Christopher Oram for a series of sets that not only run the gamut from minimalist to cluttered, but effect very rapid scene changes of which the National could only dream.

And the olfactory senses are assaulted to – creosote, gunpowder and – offensively – the stink of imitation cigarettes.

IvanovThere was also a very amusing drunken scene which sucked up to the Whingers with rambling analyses of France and Germany and lines such as “like having a wine cellar and no corkscrew”.

And Phil at least picked up one line for his repertoire: “I remember as an old lady 30 years ago…”

After the show the Whingers retired to the Koha restaurant and bar which thoughtfully has seats en plein air near to the Wyndham’s stage door from which the Whingers watched the players emerge to be greeted by a cluster of autograph hunters. First out was Andrea Riseborough (an excellent Sasha since you asked) presumably because she had a long walk home to Finchley, ages before the very late emergence of Mr Branagh in a baseball cap.

But most of all, they were disappointed that none of the autograph hunters approached the Whingers in the hope of signing the “Web Watch: Can Anyone be a critic?” section of the programme. Devastating.



1. Despite the fact that Andrew currently sports a rakish beard and Phil once grew a rather dashing full set, and that both have both successfully donned titfas (worn at jaunty angles of course) in the past, that’s not actually The Whingers discussing their latest theatrical peregrination, it’s Chekhov and Tolstoy sharing a day bed.

2. Others mentioned in “Web Watch: Can Anyone be a critic?” include Goode, Tripney, Morrision, Yeoh, Croggan Croggon and webcowgirl; the Whingers hope to organise the entire group to meet outside the Wyndham’s stage door and sign each others’ programmes very soon.


6 Responses to “Review – Ivanov, Donmar West End (Wyndham’s Theatre), with Kenneth Branagh”

  1. Ed Avis Says:

    The programme makes a good point. It does seem a bit unfair to publish a review based on a preview performance. If it’s good, fine; but if not, the show may deserve a second chance based on seeing it once it’s officially opened. What’s the Whingers policy on this?

  2. Sir Andrew Lloyds Credit Crunch Says:

    Since when were the Whingers ‘fair’? That’s not the point of their blog – and more power to them.

    And hooray for being the only critics, apparently, to see through the pedestrian Branagh.

    I can’t wait for the Whingers’ take on next year’s Ben Hur at the O2 ( will it be Hur! Hur! Hur! or Phnurr! Phnurr! Phnurr!?

  3. Rev Stan Says:

    A friend saw Ivanov last night and said Branagh forgot his lines, twice. Perhaps he’s getting jaded because he was on fine spital-spraying form when I saw him towards the beginning of the run.

  4. @ Ed: Well, we’re with Ian Shuttleworth on this. It could equally get worse.

    @ Sir Andrew: Ben Hurr is already on our radar, don’t you worry.

    @ Rev Stan: Well, to be honest KB did seem to lose the plot once or twice, but we put it down to acting.

  5. !!! I got a mention in a West End program?? The pressing question of the day is whether it was the Whingers who spelt my name wrong, or the Donmar… If you raise the air fare (chook raffles etc) I’ll be at the stage door in a flash, pen akimbo.

    While I’m waving my antipodean hand, I’ll point out that I’m on the virtual record too with Branagh. Specifically his film of Hamlet. Geographical disadvantage means I have never seen him live.

  6. Did you really need to ask, Alison? Of course it was us that spelt your name wrong, not the Donmar. Grovelling apologies.

    Your entry reads:

    Melbourne-based Australian critic Alison Croggon shares a personal assessment of Theatre Down Under at

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