Theatre review: Three Days in the Country

 
Melissa York
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Mark Gatiss gets his finger out in the National Theatre’s new production
Lyttelton Theatre | ★★★☆☆

If Three Days in the Country was written by Chekhov, the whole cast would have killed themselves by the second day and there’d just be a creaking door on the third day, swinging open and shut to the distant cry of seagulls. Happily, it’s written by one of his contemporaries, Tergenev, who’s way more upbeat. Originally titled One Month in the Country, it’s been considerably shortened and modernised by Patrick Marber (Closer) and the whole debacle takes place over a long weekend instead.

That doesn’t make it any less confusing. It’s set on a Russian aristocrat’s country estate where everyone’s names are impossible to remember (Boshintsov and Shpigelsky anyone?) and they’re all in love with each other. Luckily, the presence of acting chops as fine as Mark Gatiss’ (Sherlock), John Simm’s (24 Hour Party People) and Amanda Drew’s (Broadchurch) means the characters are defined enough to remain separate and compelling. The staging is sparse enough to give the actors room to command the space, consisting only of glass partitions suspended from cables.

The first half is a pacey, tennis match of wits packed with Wildean turns. The dialogue has a lightness to it that contrasts oddly with the cast’s heavy period costumes, but it makes for an enjoyable stroll into the neurotic world of mid-19th century courting nonetheless.

The second half opens with one of the highlights of the show, a back-breakingly funny proposal that goes wrong. It’s so funny that I suspect it’s the only reason Gatiss took the – otherwise pedestrian – role. But then the script falls prey to Marber’s unfortunate tendency for melodrama in a rushed conclusion that undermines all the amiable groundwork put in by the first act. By the end, it felt like two hours of comedy, an interval, and ten minutes of melodrama, but committed comedic performances still ensure this country jaunt is an enjoyable one.

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