The Cherry Orchard

Anton Chekhov, in a new version by Samuel Adamson
Riverside Studios
(2003)

Under the banner of the Oxford Stage Company, playwright Samuel Adamson and the company's artistic director, Dominic Dromgoole, are proving to be a strong team with a refreshing take on Chekhov.

Their production of Three Sisters four years ago was not to everyone's taste but the modern language and contemporary feel of that production and their latest collaboration, The Cherry Orchard, make for very interesting evening. While some of the characters lose significance in this version, the symbolism and poignant sense of loss are very much to the fore.

While Lyuba and Lenya, last seen played by the Redgraves in the Cottesloe, have the biggest name actors, Geraldine James and Brian Prothero, each of whom performs well, the show is almost stolen by veteran Trevor Martin as Firs, the butler. He gets lots of funny lines as a result of his character's deafness and the plot pivots around this throwback to olden days.

This lugubrious man was born a serf but on emancipation chose to remain as efficient manservant to be grossly inadequate Lenya. By the end of the play although it is the family that loses the house and, more symbolically, the Cherry Orchard, the greatest loss is that of the servant left behind.

This production is particularly effective in bringing out the political aspects of a tale of transition from the days of the landed gentry who measured their wealth in serfs to the nouveau riche former peasant class. This also prefigures the Russian Revolution.

In order to enjoy this production, it is necessary to have accent deafness. This can take a little bit of getting used to as first Lopakhin, a particularly unpleasant man in Trevor Fox's rendition, appears as a Geordie and then we see the wonderful socialist, Petya (Mark Bonnar), as a Glaswegian. Even adopted Varya, who had been with the family ever since she is a little girl, turns out to be the Northern Irish - Mairead McKinley. This does jar in that the play is about a very small, enclosed community.

The battle between the new capitalist Lopakhin, a man who regularly quotes his peasant background, and the scatty, generous brother and sister, Lyuba and Lenya, is both amusing and ultimately very sad. Dromgoole builds the tension nicely in the third act as we await the outcome of the auction of the property when power passes for the last time.

The lesser characters tend to be rather caricatured, although Abigail McKern and Michael Matus as Charlotta and Yepikhodov both amuse.

Within Rachel Blue's minimalist set, covered in hanging cherry blossom and well lit by Natasha Chivers, Adamson and Dromgoole have managed to achieve a politically heightened production that is by no means perfect but has more hits than misses. One awaits their Uncle Vanya, which must surely follow, with interest.

(Pete Wood reviewed this production at the Theatre Royal Bath)

Philip Fisher