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Follow-up to Chekov makes perfect match

DURING the post-show discussion of On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco/Can Cause Death, someone wondered whether Tyneside playwright Alison Carr made a conscious effort to emulate the style of Anton Chekhov.

Alison Carr

The burgeoning young writer quite honestly answers that if she’d ever thought about the task in hand in those terms, her head may quite well have exploded.

That’s as may be, but from where I was sitting (Northern Stage Two in Newcastle), she pretty much matched the Russian storyteller monologue for monologue, thanks in no small part to the talents of the actor David Bradley, who delivered them both.

The task she had was the writing of a companion play to Chekhov’s On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco. Her first draft had been the “obvious choice” from a strong field, according to the actor who did her words proud – first at the National in London and last week on the writer’s home turf.

First published in 1886, Chekhov’s 20-minute piece was one of his early works and sees put-upon husband and father (as well as enthusiastic smoker) Nyukhin, begin a lecture on tobacco’s bad points, on instruction from his monstrous-sounding wife.

He does little more than scratch the surface of the lecture’s title though, preferring to tread a hamster’s wheel of digression and recount the misery which has made up his day-to-day existence for almost 33 years of marriage.

Delivered through Chekhov’s characteristically tragi-comic storytelling style, we hear about his luckless life, lived in a fear which is demonstrated via constant over-the- shoulder checks for his wife’s arrival in the wings); and his ever-dormant dreams, which have been kept so by his ever-dominant other half.

Bradley is brilliant, barely moving from the spotlight, yet commanding attention and capturing Nyukhin’s browbeaten and life-weary state of existence.

An other-worldly transition, completed to a sombre strings composition by Philippa Herrick, sees the husband become the wife, Popova, who is poised to give the eulogy for the now late Nyukhin ... armed (despite what we think we know of her opinions on alcohol) with a bottle and a glass.

And so comes Carr’s Can Cause Death, the other side of this 33-year union, which this wife has spent with a nuptial noose around her neck.

We hear of her never-realised dreams, her disappointments and her feelings for this man “as it were” who had been her last resort on the road to matrimony.

By picking out selected reference points from the Chekhov text and weaving them throughout her similarly tragically comic monologue, Carr has created a true companion to the original piece, leaving you in no doubt that these two were perfectly matched. And deserved each other.

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