Review: The Cherry Orchard

4 star rating
Director Phil Willmott successfully sets Chekhov's last play in 1917, linking past and present-day Russia, and adding a timely, enriching dimension to the play.
The Cherry Orchard at Union Theatre

Image: Union Theatre



Closes here: Saturday 7 April 2018

Author:
Anton Chekhov, based on a translation by Julius West and adapted by Phil Willmott

Composer:
Theo Holloway

Director:
Phil Willmott

Cast:

Ranyevskaya, A Landowner - Suanne Braun

Anya, Her Daughter - Lucy Menzies

Varya, Her Adopted Daughter - Lakesha Cammock

Gaev, Ranyevskaya's Brother - Richard Gibson

Lopakhin, A Businessman - Christopher Laishley

Trofimov, A Bolshevik Student - Feliks Mathur

Pishchik, A Neighbour & Former Ballerina - Caroline Wildi

Charlotta, A Governess - Emma Manton

Yyepikhodov, A Clerk - Alexander Huetson

Dunyasha, A Maidservant - Molly Crookes

Fiers, An Old Footman - Robert Donald

Yasha, A Young Footman - Hugo Nicholson

Student & Egor, A Bolshevik Post-Office Clerk - Jonny Rust

Bolsheviks and other servants and landowners played by the company.


Synopsis


Anton Chekhov's final masterpiece, a poignant comedy about a family facing ruin, is a vibrant snapshot of life before the sweeping changes that came to a head with the Russian Revolution.


Populated by colourful, vivid and unforgettable characters this much loved play comes to new life in a daringly fresh production that anticipates the regime change to come.


Since the death of a child, the old house, set amidst its beautiful cherry orchard, has been abandoned for years by most of the family.


Now the family, their staff and hangers-on are back to decide what to do with the property and the remains of their rapidly depleting fortune.


Three generations of masters and servants must assess their best chance of survival and the future of the cherry orchard, in a changing world where nothing can be taken for granted.


Background


The third production in the Union Theatre's Essential Classics 2018 season comprising of Shaw's Heartbreak House, Bizet's Carmen and Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard.


Three topical productions from the Phil Willmott Company in which great playwrights and composers of the past have reflected on issues similar to those we face today.


ActDrop reviews


Peter Brown

Performance date: Friday 16 March 2018
Review star rating image for 3 stars

The last production in the Union Theatre's Essential Classics season for 2018 sees the Phil Willmott Company tackling Chekhov's final work, written in 1903 and first performed a year later.


The aim of the Essential Classic Season is to present the work of great playwrights and composers of the past who "have reflected on issues similar to those we face today".


For Phil Willmott, here directing his 'favourite play', that means considering the nature of present-day Russia - for example it's self-serving ruling elite, its attempts to "mess with our heads", it's involvement in Syria and Chechnya and its football hooligans, among other matters.


Presumably those might also include alleged interference in the American election as well as the more recent allegations targeted at the Russian state about the use of nerve agent in attempted murders on British soil and, possibly, an actual murder.


To secure his intentions, then, Mr Willmott advances the date of the setting to 1917 and we join the historical persepctive when the Zsar has abdicated and the country faces considerable social unrest.


Within that larger framework, the play (as per the original) focuses on a land-owning family suffering from a dire shortage of ready cash.


Ranyevskaya has been in Paris for the past five years and is returning to her run-down estate in Russia which sports a cherry orchard.


Basically broke yet seemingly care-free about spending what little money she has left, she faces ruin since her land is mortgaged and she has been unable to keep up interest payments.


A serf turned wealthy businessman, called Lopakhin, suggests a means to cash-in on her estate and make sufficient money to live comfortably, by selling the estate to build holiday homes for the newly-wealthy middle class.


But Ranyevskaya regards the proposition of selling to what she regards as lower classes as abhorrent, and so the estate has to go under the hammer and her family have to leave their home, and the cherry orchard - symbol of stability - falls under the axe.


That is, in fact, pretty-much all that happens in The Cherry Orchard, at least in its original formulation, so the addition of angry young communists invading the estate has some additional merit and interest, which also finds echoes in Chekhov's writing.


The Cherry Orchard has been categorised in different ways.


However, to my mind at least, the play is a mixture of genres - comedy laced with tragedy, plus a not insignificant dose of farce.


It's hard not to see it any other way given that several of the characters do seem to border on being bonkers.


For example, though Ranyevskaya acknowledges that she is broke, she is a casually determined spendthrift who throws gold at almost anyone who fetches-up at her house.


And her eccentric brother Gaev (well played by Richard Gibson) doesn't seem to have done a stroke of work in his life and is a prattling fantasist who repetitively delivers irritating phrases about billiards.


There's plenty of fine, wistful music woven into the production and there's excellent work from an ensemble who prove equally capable of entertaining and delivering the necessary melancholy when the family are forced to leave their home.


Mr Willmott's decision to advance the action to the immediate aftermath of the Russian revolution does add a significant and enriching dimension to the play.


Because this is a piece about how people adapt and respond to changing pressures and circumstances, which surely ought to include political influences as well as those of a social or personal nature.


And the overall approach to this play proves a timely and appropriate way to conclude this interesting and enjoyable season given the nature of recent (unanticipated) events.


Note:


Robert Donald, who was playing Fiers in the production, sadly suffered a fall recently, fracturing his hip.


Though now comfortable in hospital, his role was removed from the play rather than rehearsing a new actor at short notice, though Robert may yet be able to re-join the production later in the run.


Like colleagues in the cast and creative team, we wish him a very speedy recovery.



ActDrop listing for The Union Theatre
Our show listing for The Cherry Orchard
Read our reviews' policy

Support the Make A Difference Trust ...


Buy tickets for West End Bares at the Shaftesbury Theatre