The Cherry Orchard

Anton Chekhov, in a version by Andrew Upton
RNT Olivier Theatre

The Cherry Orchard production photo

When it was announced, this new London production of The Cherry Orchard (first seen in Sydney five years ago) seemed to have "hit" written all over it.

Behind it is the team of director Howard Davies and playwright Andrew Upton that triumphed with The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov last year (for which Davies won a well-deserved Olivier) and before that Maxim Gorky's Philistines.

Admittedly, there are some minor differences in that this time they have moved upstairs into the Olivier Theatre and the latest Russian genius to get the treatment is perhaps the best of them all, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov.

At the centre of this production playing Madame Ranevskaya is another National favourite, Zoë Wanamaker. She has hardly put a foot wrong on the South Bank of late, with unforgettable performances in The Rose Tattoo and Much Ado About Nothing. Once again, she makes her mark, excelling when looming disaster must finally be faced after long periods of denial.

Bunny Christie's setting with its decaying wooden walls is of the period a century or more ago, as are the costumes. Everything else about this version is very brash and modern with sex-obsessed common folk and Upton's colloquial use of language that even stoops to expletives.

The creative team have taken to heart Chekhov's opinion that his plays are comedies and, partly by peopling the household with entertaining eccentrics, get more laughs than a more traditional reading.

The balance also feels different, although the basic story inevitably remains the same. In essence, the thoughtlessly generous Madame Ranevskaya has finally given away all of the family riches, most recently in her pursuit of a feckless lover in France.

She returns with her brother, James Laurenson as the loquacious and possibly incipiently senile Gaev, sure that something will come up to save the day. After all, they are the aristocracy.

Hope could be satisfied either if her beautiful young daughter Anya, sweetly played by a very fresh-faced Charity Wakefield, can make a marriage to money or possibly, should her adopted sister, Varya do likewise.

Peaky Varya (Claudie Blakley) is one of those ultra-efficient female Chekhovian workhorses, who is never much loved but has private hopes of redemption through making a good match.

In this case, her supposed beau is self-confessed oaf, Lopakhin, a sweaty exemplar of working class man made good but suffering from an inferiority complex bred through generations of serfdom.

Taking this role, a particularly convincing Conleth Hill combines the arrogance of the nouveau riche millionaire with a touch of desperation and frustration, as practical suggestions to save the family home and Cherry Orchard are repeatedly pooh-poohed by his patronising hosts.

Howard Davies has been lucky enough to cast not only fine actors in all of the leading parts but tremendous strength in depth. The character acting of Kenneth Cranham as the dotty old retainer, Firs, Pip Carter as lanky, accident-prone Yepihodov, Sarah Woodward poignantly playing magical Charlotta, and Tim McMullen in the role of Pishchik is memorable with each given eagerly-accepted chances to shine.

In this version, with its strong political undercurrents, Mark Bonnar as a Scottish-accented Trofimov the eternal student becomes one of the major players. This results not only from his passionately idealistic pre-Communist philosophising but also flirtatious interactions with both the lady of the house and Anya.

There is little doubt that this gripping, if arguably perhaps too freely-adapted, 3-hour version will prove a big hit. That should be the case both with more open-minded devotees of the great Russian playwright but also those coming fresh to his work.

Inflation has caught up with Travelex and the National at long last, as this is the first 2011 play in their £12 Season. Despite the 20% increase on last year's price, it still represents possibly the best entertainment value in London, probably costing less even than the price of a cinema ticket to see the The Cherry Orchard being screened live across the country on 30th June.

Booking until 28 July

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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