There’s something a little embarrassing about seeing the minor work (or in this case, the very minor work) of a great artist. The proposal is a bit of fluff, a comic romance about a marriage proposal that goes awry and which then needs to be fixed.
Playing in the lunch-hour slot, at the St James Studio on a handkerchief stage, its audience sit, drinks in hand, around small tables. The atmosphere, despite the early hour, is very burlesque and the company, Russian dancing in, do not disappoint.
Stephan Stepanovitch Tchubukov and his daughter, Natalia Stepanovna are neighbours to Vassiliyitch Lomov. Lomov enters with a proposal for Natalia, which Tchubukov blesses, before leaving the two young people to talk. Before Lomov can make his declaration, however, he and Natalia begin to fight, both claiming that the Oxen meadows, hardly worth a trifle, is theirs alone. Lomov, a hypochondriac, goes through a series of spasms and then angrily leaves. When Tchubukov returns he tells his daughter that Lomov had come to propose. She is devastated and begs her father to call him back. Tchubukov does so and Lomov returns, only to begin arguing with Natalia again.
Matthew McPherson does a convincing turn as the truly love sick lover, each new ailment incapacitating him further from making a declaration. Jestyn Phillips, despite the brevity of his time on stage, is clearly a powerful actor who holds one’s attention. It is also quite a confident debut by newcomer Nadia Hynes as Stepanovna. The play, however, despite some funny moments, does not surprise.
The Bear is in the same vein as The Proposal but is redeemed by having a better story-line, better physical comedy, and of course, by having some sex.
Elena Ivanovna Popova has been in mourning for her husband these last seven months, not because she loved him (he betrayed her) but because, we suspect, she relishes the seeming holiness that attaches to her state. When she is alone with her husband’s portrait she berates him, fist clenched, and calls him ‘noodle’ and one wonders whether Dickens borrowed/stole this scene for his Mrs Sparsit in Hard Times.
Popova’s manservant Luka opens the door to Grigory Stepanovitch Smirnov who has come to collect a debt which must be paid immediately or else he will himself fail to make a payment he owes. Popova says she doesn’t have the money and that he should return another day. Smirnov decides to wait it out. As the two quarrel, he is taken in by her beauty and her gusto and his anger transforms into something warmer and then something warmer still.
Jestyn Phillips plays the cowed servant Luka, Caroline Colomei shifts easily from haughtiness to lust but it is Gary Sefton as Smirnov who carries this short one act play. His comic timing is good, and his portrayal of a middle-level man, neither servant nor landowner allows us to experience another, deeper emotion beside the humour of this farce. I personally would have liked the love scene to be played out slower; otherwise, the directorial tempo works.
The actors in both Chekhov plays are, one senses, far better than the work in which they have been placed. And it is hoped that we will soon see them flexing their muscles in stronger work.