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Review: Fathers and Sons

Donmar Warehouse, London WC2

    Unshakeable: Jack McMullen, Anthony Calf and Seth Numrich in Fathers and Sons
    Unshakeable: Jack McMullen, Anthony Calf and Seth Numrich in Fathers and Sons

    Before Chekhov gave the world Russian estates populated by melancholics, sufferers of unrequited love and noble families on the cusp of huge social change, there was Ivan Turgenev. This nicely staged revival of Brian Friel's 1987 adaptation of Turgenev's novel, directed by Lyndsey Turner, draws you into the company of a landed family buffeted by free-thinking, young nihilist Bazarov (played by Seth Numrich) for whom every comforting convention is worthy of contempt.

    He is brought into the home and its grounds by the family son Arkady (Joshua James) who can talk the nihilist talk. But when it comes to denouncing his own family's absurdities, such as those paraded by his aristocratic Uncle Pavel (played by a mesmerisingly supercilious Tim McMullan), loyalty and love keep getting in the way.

    The evening is a suitably slow burn brimful of beautifully observed characters. Set in 1859, just a couple of years before the book was published, the social change hanging over the action is the emancipation of the serfs. It's a theoretical revolution for most of the peasants it affects. But, here, knowledge of the change swells like a flooding current through the lives of the privileged.

    Ultimately, Friel's expertly modulated version works best revealing the frailties and motives beneath the visage each character presents as a public face. There is Bazarov's doctor father, Vassily (Karl Johnson), who affects a formality with his formidable son but, it is revealed, desperately yearns for something closer. And Elaine Cassidy, as the widowed heiress Anna, eventually cracks at the realisation that a chance to love has been missed. There is good work, too, from Anthony Calf's Nikolai, the estate's patriarch whose duty is to the land but whose passion lies in music.

    And yet artful though the evening undoubtedly is, aside from Caoilfhionn Dunne's Fenichka - the former servant, and mother to Nikola's new baby - there is little sense of Turgenev's characters being tragically stranded by their condition. And, for me, few of the personal tragedies and predicaments on view deliver the emotional payoff of Chekhov and, it has to be said, Friel, at their most devastating.

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