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The Hotel Cerise

Bonnie Greer
Theatre Royal, Stratford East

Alexis Rodney as Toussaint and Ellen Thomas as Anita Lily Mountjoy Sinclaire Thimbutu Credit: Stephen Cummiskey
El Anthony as Josiah Tripp, Nicholas Beveney as Augustus Leon Mountjoy, Abhin Galeya as Karim Hassan and Michael Bertenshaw as Fielding Credit: Stephen Cummiskey
Nicholas Beveney as Augustus Leon Mountjoy and Lacharne Jolly as Charlotte Credit: Stephen Cummiskey
Angela Wynter as Jackie Credit: Stephen Cummiskey
Michael Bertenshaw as Fielding Credit: Stephen Cummiskey
Ellen Thomas as Anita Lily Mountjoy Sinclaire Thimbutu Credit: Stephen Cummiskey

Bonnie Greer’s new play is inspired by Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. It borrows a great deal from the Russian classic, but it isn’t an adaptation that simply transposes a script to a new setting.

That setting is the Hotel Cerise in Michigan, once a luxurious getaway resort for successful black celebrities. It is named for the cherry orchard in the grounds around it whose crop, harvested by immigrant workers, is now as diminished as the hotel’s fortunes. Long ago, its white owner bequeathed it to a former slave family who became rich, black upper class but have now frittered away their fortune. Only the hotel is left—for them it is the end of an era.

The Madame Ranevskaya equivalent is Anita Lily Mountjoy Sinclaire Thimbutu, just returning with her entourage from living in Paris for the sale of her property. Estate manager Karim Hassan is Greer’s Lopakhin of a poor Latino family the Mountjoys took under their wing—he owes much to their patronage. Now he has plans for the hotel’s redevelopment, exploiting its glamorous past, very different from Anita’s attachment to her old home.

Ellen Thomas delivers a powerful performance as Anita—it is not just that she stands out in a white dress that makes her dominant—and Abhin Galeya’s Karim seems to have genuine feelings for the family.

There are similar matchings with other Chekhov characters and incident but this play is as much about colour as class. It is set now, in the build-up to the US Presidential Election with the threat of a Trump victory and “Black Lives Matter” protests as yet another black man is shot by police. Those shootings, it is suggested, are a by proxy assassination of President Obama, whose photo is proudly displayed on a desk.

As they knock back champagne at a Fourth of July party, you see how easily Anita and her playboy brother spend money (the glitzy costumes too must have eaten into the theatre’s budget). How prepared are these people for the future?

There is conflict too between Anita’s nostalgia and a younger generation like Alexis Rodney’s Toussaint, a radicalised teacher, and Corey Montague-Sholay’s TK, whose best friend was killed in Afghanistan. Everyone seems to represent something different but we don’t learn much about them as people. There is a baffling appearance by what seems like a ghost from slave days rather than Chekhov’s beggar and his enigmatic sound “like the snapping of a string the fall of a bucket in a mine shaft” becomes a long earthquake tremor.

The mix of symbolism and realism is reflected in Ellen Cairns's set of art nouveau doorways and tree forms receding to provide glimpses of action elsewhere. It is beautiful—in time past it would have got an opening round as Michael Bertenshaw’s butler Fielding (the Firs character) is discovered on it clutching a bouquet of pink flowers.

Femi Elufowoju Jr’s production looks lovely and he draws positive performances from all his twelve cast that disguise a situation that isn’t quite real, or seems so perhaps because it is set in a milieu about which we know so little. Less adherence to Chekhov’s original might have made her points clearer.

That earthquake suggests changes that are going to be earth-moving. Greer isn’t offering a prediction of what they will be. I wonder whether the play may find extra meaning in the last week of its run when audiences will know America’s choice between Trump and Clinton?

Reviewer: Howard Loxton