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The Cherry Orchard

Anton Chekhov in a version by Mike Poulton
Chichester Festival Theatre
(2008)

Production photo

Chichester Festival Theatre achieved such tremendous success with the previous two years’ productions that the pressure is now intense to repeat their triumph once again. Expectations are high!

The season began superbly with the musical Funny Girl and an endearingly comical Samantha Spiro in the title role, giving the character of showgirl Fanny Brice more warmth and humanity than Barbra Streisand ever achieved.

Now we have moved on to Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, the story of a formerly wealthy family in rural Russia, rushing headlong towards the Revolution and unable to comprehend the coming reversal of fortunes.

The production is not flawless – the heights and depths of the emotional Russian characters are not fully conveyed, and Leslie Travers’ vast grey sparsely furnished set on the large thrust stage of the Festival Theatre does nothing to help indicate the claustrophobic insular atmosphere of a family isolated in rural Russia, but there are some splendid individual performances from this star-studded cast.

The setting is the former nursery with some happy memories for the family, but a large branch of a cherry tree in blossom hangs over their heads, symbolic of the cherished but useless cherry orchard which will have to be sacrificed if they are to survive.

The solution is at hand, presented by Lopakhin, the now wealthy former serf, and Michael Siberry excels in this role trying desperately to convince Madame Ranyevskaya that the trees must go to be replaced by holiday villas. What a salesman! He would have no trouble convincing me! He persuades, he entreats, he cajoles and uses logic, but to no avail, and his enthusiasm and energy demonstrate his determination to succeed in the world, and are evidence of how he managed to rise from serf to a position of status in the first place. He shouts angrily in frustration as his helpful advice is unheeded – well, he certainly tried hard. . His eventual triumph when he succeeds in the purchase of the cherry orchard is tempered with compassion for the woman who had once been kind to her ‘little peasant’.

Ranyevskaya (a character based on Chekhov’s own wife) is ageless Diana Rigg, adorably beautiful as she skims through life generously and absurdly giving away money while leaving none to feed the servants. William Gaunt entertains as her batty brother Gayev, forever playing an imaginary game of billiards, and ignoring the changes in society as much as his sister. Young footman Yasha is portrayed with annoyingly supercilious arrogance and selfishness by Oliver Kieron-Jones, and Frank Finlay is deaf old family retainer Firs who mumbles and stumbles his way through it all, bewildered by the changes, and accepting his inevitable death as he accepted his life as one of servitude.

Maureen Lipman brilliantly brings her own brand of comedy (and her little dog) to the role of conjuring governess, and Jemma Redgrave, as daughter Varya, skilfully transmits her feelings of frustration to the audience as she tries desperately to manage a household doomed by her mother’s extravagance, her fervent religious beliefs sustaining her when the longed for marriage to Lopakhin is not forthcoming, although her distress and disappointment are obvious

Chekhov referred to the play as a comedy, and there is plenty of laughter but, as in life, comedy and tragedy are mixed in equal measure.

Until Saturday, 7th June

Reviewer: Sheila Connor