Chekov blooms with themes of today

The Cherry Orchard

Birmingham Rep  

****

ON A COLD, October evening there was something warm and comforting about the expansive, sun dappled room that sets the scene on this latest adaptation of Anton Chekov's classic, The Cherry Orchard.  

With such a wide stage, the indoor settings seem cavernous - a challenge indeed for the lighting designer to suggest any feeling of needed intimacy. Conversely, the outdoor scenes are perfectly suited to this kind of space. Visually, there are some moments of real magic here – the sun setting gradually on an orchard clearing was a joy to watch as was the smooth transition between locations. 

This is a classic tale with very modern themes. Loyalty. Family values. Unrequited love. The power of money.  It's all there!  At the root of it stands Liubov Ranevskaya, (Josie Lawrence) a lady with a heart of gold and something of a laissez faire attitude to money.

Generous with her loans as well as with her affections, Liubov sweeps across the stage , embracing and kissing everyone in her wake – a ‘people person' of the highest order! 

FINANCIAL HARDSHIPS

Her dilemma – to face financial hardship but keep her beloved cherry orchard or sell to the highest bidder and put much needed funds in the bank. As the pressure mounts, something has to give and emotions run high. 

Josie Lawrence is hugely watchable. Presence is hard to define but this Black Country actress, back on home turf, has it in spades. She almost glides round the stage embracing both the language and indeed most of the other characters en route.  

This is, however, no one woman show. A strong ensemble cast bring out of the beauty of this piece. Comedy moments are savoured and Tom Stoppard's adaptation brings a slightly modern edge to the dialogue.  

The Birmingham Rep has something for everyone this season. From new writing to classic work.  No excuses not to go then!   

Directed by Rachel Kavanaugh, The Cherry Orchard runs until 06-11-10

Tom Roberts

Cherries still blooming . . .

****

STRIP away the layers of social etiquette and formality within The Cherry Orchard and what's left is a narrative that appears as contemporary as any other in these times of financial difficulty and mortgage repossession.  

Liubov Andreevna Ranevskaya (Josie Laurence) returns with her brother and daughter to their family home after five years abroad. It's a homecoming full of bitter sweet memories. The once great house set in the cherry orchard has fallen into neglect, accumulating considerable mortgage arrears. With the estate now doomed to be auctioned off to pay her debts, Liubov, her friends and family struggle with the reality of each of their unsettling financial and emotional situations. 

It's a play of subtle metaphors of a country on the verge of wide political change. Like the business man Lopakhin (John Ramm) whose transition from his uneducated peasant upbringing to the eventual owner of the cherry orchard, demonstrates the considerable shift in power through accumulated wealth. Yet it leaves him both joyous and embarrassed with his new social standing. 

There seems little to laugh about in this comedy but it's there in the face of adversity.  “ I am an 80s man” says Liubov's brother Leonid (Patrick Drury) .A comment that raised a full laugh even though he was referring to another century.  

None of Chekhov's women fare favourably in this mans world. “He died of Champagne”, recounts Liubov regretfully of her husband. There is her daughter Anya's (Amy McAllister) doting admiration for the more than mature student Trofimov (Anthony Flanagan) whose obsession with intellectuality claims they are “above love”.  While the housemaid Dunyasha (Joanna Horton) waits insecurely for a proposal of marriage from Lopakhin. A tension that is concluded in one of the best moments within the production. 

WIDER APPEAL

This adaptation by Tom Stoppard, his third of Chekhov's' work, unsurprisingly seems to have added an ingredient of British stiff upper lip perhaps giving it a wider appeal but at the sacrifice of its roots.  

This is further added too by the direction of Rachel Kavanaugh who keeps the topping on this rich cake very light. There are moments of desperation but often its all iced over and rescued before we have a chance to appreciate its darker flavour.  

As a production there is little room for intimacy on this wide expanse corridor-like, tower of a set whose scale is accentuated by the long cross stage walks of the aging servant Firs (Leonard Fenton) and whose doddery dementia secures the larger part of the comedy.  

Laurence's mere presence is both commanding and formidable as Liubov.  There is an added sense of a homecoming for a girl from Old Hill in the West Midlands returning to the Birmingham Rep, which ironically is itself due to close in a few months for reconstruction work.  

Throughout, this is a bright, optimistic and highly enjoyable Cherry Orchard. One where the inhabitants smile through adversity and shrug off their sense of deeper loss and uncertain futures. 

However it is a production where the familiar statement your home will be repossessed if you do not keep up repayments proves there is much more to lose than just bricks and mortar for not doing so, and even in a comedy that's no laughing matter. To 06-11-10 

Jeff Grant

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