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FringeReview Scotland 2014

Uncle Varick

Rapture Theatre Company

Venue: Palace Theatre, KIlmarnock


Low Down

Rapture Theatre continue their mission to give new life to previously seen work with this production of John Byrne’s adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Set in rural Scotland the workies on the Estate welcome a long lost brother-in-law back as he has recently retired from his glitzy London media career. With his younger wife he returns to take the temperature of the rude health of the Estate and his daughter, the object of her affections, the local doctor, his former mother in law, a few local worthies who work on the Estate and Varick. Varick has kept the estate barely solvent and ticking over but discovers the return of his deceased sister’s husband is not to provide him with a slap on the back as thanks.


I saw this 10 years ago with Brian Cox playing Varick when it was vaulted onto the Scottish stage as a vehicle for him. The adaptation Byrne has rendered has much to commend it – sparkling witticisms and wry observations; the set piece where Varick tries to use a chainsaw on Sandy; and dialogue that at various times zings along. The problem with the piece though begins and nearly ends with the script.

Chekhov, it could be argued, is all about ineptitude in the face of progress and how that lack of action means that the reigning order is condemned to death by their own inaction. Removing the background of the state of Russia at the time depoliticises the piece; it loses its own principal cause for action. We are stuck with sympathy for Varick whilst the caricature which is Sandy falls just short of interactive booing to make it all a little more pantomimic.

We are introduced to Varick and the locals complaining this visit from Sandy and his new wife before we discover the status quo; Sandy’s daughter Shona loves Michael – the doctor – but Michael does not reciprocate; Varick keeps things working with the help of Willie John – the minstrel – Kirsty Morag – the sage with a taste for vengeance – and a hired help; Mhairi – mother to Varick and mother in law to Sandy – spends her time reading about and hoping for female emancipation.

Sandy and Elaine’s arrival bring focus onto the relationships as well as the workings of the Estate and associated brewery. Sandy distracts Varick through carousing till the dawns, Elaine spurns Varick’s advances but seduces the doctor, Mhairi remains oblivious, Sandy decides to sell up, Varick tries to kill him with a chain saw that runs out of petrol at the critical moment and both Willie John and Kirsty Morag observe and comment upon it all. By the end Sandy’s daughter Shona continues to love Michael and Michael may have softened; Varick returns to work with the help of Shona, Willie John and Kirsty Morag and the hired help; Mhairi continues to spend her time reading about and hoping for female emancipation.

Within the context of a country in the midst of tremendous social upheaval I get the point but in the swinging sixties? Had John Byrne written this as his own piece it may well have attracted less criticism. Even if it was set within the context of a post referendum Scotland it might have had something to contribute – in fact that setting could have been well worth exploring – but here at a time that our social order WAS changing that all feels a little lost.

In terms of direction there were a few moments I wondered about why people were staged where they were – there was an awkward scene where mother in law and daughter chose to be behind the table sitting which meant the candelabra were very much in the way; but apart from that it was solid.

The use of songs from the sixties helped but at times I thought the ever reliant Dave Anderson was a little under par and dare I say off key? As for the actors, Jimmy Chisholm was great, John Stahl outrageous, Maureen Carr excellent and both Selina Boyack and Ashley Smith – in the age of X Factor – nailed it.

Now I do like a set and what we got from Jessica Brettle was certainly a set. It looked perfectly decayed but did not suggest opulence in any way and that is where I had a tiny problem. I was looking for a sense of decay from what it once was and this didn’t provide me with that. I realise that this is down to interpretation but I just wanted to feel that the characters were infected by such decay and struggling to cope with the loss of something. It gave me no glimpse of either the swinging period in which it was set or a time when the Estate had a handle on things. It also wasn’t busy enough at times – function or even budget stopped it being an all encompassing extra reference point.

Lighting was effective though Dave Anderson did most of his singing in the dark. And a wee note to the venues that this visits – the Palace was too hot and with a 1 hour and a quarter first half a struggle for some of us. I am aware a few left at the interval. I also noticed students from the local College in attendance. They attend college 15 miles away but eschewed going to their local theatre which welcomes the show 2 days later because a full price ticket at the Palace was £9; it’s £15.50 nearer home… Well done the Palace!

Overall this was well worth dusting down and giving it another airing. It has much to commend it but the flaws are, for me, too much to ignore. Had it been presented in 2004 as a new John Byrne piece I think it would have been aired before now more often but as it has name checked a masterful storyteller another masterful storyteller suffers.