The Cherry Orchard

Gary Owen / Anton Chekhov

Sherman Theatre

Sherman Theatre

From 13 October 2017 to 03 November 2017

Review by Othniel Smith

Gary Owen’s adaptation of Chekhov’s final major work is already a hit. Even before previews had begun, it was announced that the run would be extended by a week; and this is in the Sherman’s 400-seater main auditorium.

The Cherry Orchard is the third collaboration between Owen and director (and Sherman supremo) Rachel O’Riordan, following on from the international success of Iphigenia In Splott, and the sold-out Cardiff and London runs of Killology. As the pre-publicity suggests, it is a radical “reimagining” of the canonical text.

Instead of provincial Russia at the turn of the 20th century, this Orchard is situated in Owen’s native Pembrokeshire, in 1982. Bloumfield is an old manor house somewhere near the coast, set in voluminous grounds, owned by the Raine family.

The lady of the house, Rainey, has been living a life of sex-and-alcohol-infused excess in London, having fled Wales following the deaths of her husband and young son several years earlier. She is dragged back, however, to deal with a crisis: the family is deeply in debt, and they are in danger of losing the property. Her adopted daughter, Valerie, in conjunction with long-time family friend Lewis, informs her that the only solution is to chop down their orchard (the brand of fruit goes unspecified), and sell the land to developers, who will replace it with a housing estate.

The situation is observed, with varying degrees of detachment, by Gabriel, Rainey’s genial older brother; Anya, her daughter who has returned from university; Ceri, Anya’s former tutor and would-be boyfriend, an unemployed would-be revolutionary; and Dottie, the housekeeper who, like Lewis, is of “peasant stock”, and has been involved with the family since childhood.

While this is undoubtedly an ensemble piece, the showiest role belongs to Denise Black, whose waspishly funny, endlessly flirtatious Rainey is a highlight. Self-consciously “a bit of a handful”, she is never without a drink in her hand as she attempts, largely without success, to dull the pain of bereavement.

Hedydd Dylan’s nerdy Valerie is the perfect counterpoint, careworn and exasperated, and seemingly ready to settle for a businesslike marriage to Lewis, once a snotty-nosed boy whose grandfather used to work on the estate, now a successful builder. Matthew Bulgo plays him not as the stereotypical, sneering Thatcherite working-class oik made good, but as a thoughtful, ambitious man who can scarcely believe it when it seems that his fortunes are about to improve as the old order fades.

Social class is signified by the fact that the Raine family (even the adopted Valerie) speak in Received Pronuncation, with the occasional lapse, while the “peasants” are defiantly Welsh. It is also reflected in the relationship between Morfydd Clark’s Anya, and Richard Mylan’s Ceri. She has inherited some of her mother’s brazenness and delights in teasing him by boasting about her college girlfriend; he is a black-clad, music-loving hipster, posturing but sincere in his affections, constantly speechifying about art and politics—a Manic Street Preacher born a decade too early.

There is also a degree of sexual tension between Alexandria Riley’s feisty and worldly-wise Dottie and Simon Armstrong as Gabriel, the kind of harmless old posh duffer who always manages to get by; although this is somewhat more one-sided.

Rather than modernising Chekhov’s dialogue, Owen has taken the (fairly thin) narrative and most important characters and put his own stamp on them. His writing exhibits a West End slickness—fluent and witty, but ever willing to delve into painful corners—and the politics are almost as complex as the interpersonal dynamics. Under O’Riordan’s sympathetic direction, the alternately warm and fractious relationships between family members and the people who know them too well are deftly portrayed.

Kenny Miller’s set somehow manages to be both sparse and lavish, a living-space full of lovingly preserved heirloom furniture (Welsh dresser, bookcase, sofa), but sufficiently open to suggest outdoor spaces when we pay the occasional visit to the grounds and shadowy enough to allow for the odd ghostly chill here and there. Kevin Treacy’s lighting design subtly suggests a rural spring and Simon Slater’s gentle score and sound effects (interspersed with scene-setting contemporaneous pop tunes) are seductive.

Like the original, Owen’s The Cherry Orchard is a clever, microcosmic portrait of a society on the cusp of cataclysmic change. It is also a highly enjoyable evening (three hours, including interval) in the theatre, consistently humorous, emotionally resonant, and distinguished by a winning set of performances.