The Cherry Orchard

Anton Chekhov in a version by Simon Stephens
Nottingham Playhouse Theatre Company
Nottingham Playhouse

Kenneth Alan Taylor (Firs), Sara Stewart (Madame Ranevskaya) and John Elkington (Lopakhin) Credit: Robert Day
John Elkington (Lopakhin) and Sara Stewart (Madame Ranevskaya) Credit: Robert Day
Kenneth Alan Taylor (Firs) Credit: Robert Day

Giles Croft marks the end of his tenure as artistic director of Nottingham Playhouse by directing his first Chekhov.

He wanted to set himself one final challenge to mark the end of his 18 years at the theatre which have been packed with successes. The most recent was Matthew Spangler’s adaptation of Khaled Husseini’s novel The Kite Runner which had two West End runs as well as going on two nationwide tours.

When one of Croft’s colleagues suggested The Cherry Orchard as his swansong, he felt it was the correct choice. He surrounded himself with actors he knows well and a creative team whose work he is familiar with.

Parallels can be drawn between the play’s themes of change and upheaval and Croft’s personal situation at the Playhouse, so The Cherry Orchard seems ideal for Croft to leave on a high note.

But this production is disappointing. The main problem with it appears to be Simon Stephens’s script. In his programme notes, Croft revealed he rejected versions by the likes of Tom Stoppard and Michael Frayn, choosing Stephens’s offering because it is less Chekhovian and feels like a new play rather than an adaptation.

The play is presented in modern dress but this appears to reduce its power and poignancy: you do not get much of a sense of the aristocratic history of Madame Ranevskaya and her family. I also felt detached from the family’s troubles rather than a sympathetic connection.

The play starts with Madame Ranevskaya being brought back from France, where she was living with her lover, to her Russian estate. Businessman Lopakhin comes to remind her that unless she acts to pay off the family’s debts, the estate will be auctioned off. He proposes allowing the estate’s cherry orchard to be developed into summer cottages—a controversial but necessary measure.

Sara Stewart as Madame Ranevskaya excels only when the realisation that she has to leave her home finally sinks in. In the first half of the play she does not seem irresponsible enough when she fails to grasp the enormity of the situation facing her. The narcissism of the character has been replaced by an indifference to the changing world around her.

The success of the evening is John Elkington as Lopakhin. Many Playhouse regulars may know him only as the dame in the theatre’s annual panto but he has many talents at his disposal. He excelled as Frederick Fellowes in the Playhouse’s 2016 production of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off and in The Cherry Orchard he gives a towering performance.

He is a complete natural as the wealthy merchant who never forgets his lowly social background. You are able to forgive his betrayal of the family when he buys the estate at auction because you realise he is being cruel to be kind.

There is also a touching performance by Kenneth Alan Taylor as the ageing, senile Firs, the only manservant left to tender to the bankrupt family’s needs.

The rest of the 13-strong cast give good accounts of themselves although there is a sense that some of their characters need more in the way of development.

The action takes place in the Ranevskaya house, Tim Meacock’s design showing a rundown building with paint peeling off the walls and basic furniture illustrating how the family’s fortunes have declined.

Towards the end, parts of the house are taken away, leaving an untidy mess which reminds us that this is a theatre set rather than a decaying home. The curtain then comes down on the end of the Ranevskaya estate and the end of Croft’s time at the Playhouse.

The outgoing artistic director has given us some memorable productions at Nottingham Playhouse over the past 18 years; this may not be remembered with as much affection as some of his other accomplishments.

Reviewer: Steve Orme

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