Orchard produces impressive fruit

Jean Wilde as Madame Lyubov Andreievna Ravensky and James Weetman as the rich merchant from a lowly background, Liubov Andreievna Lopakhin

The Cherry Orchard

Hall Green Little Theatre

****

ANTON Chekov's final play is not the easiest for any company, particularly an amateur one.

For a start it has a cast of 15 characters plus various guests and spear carriers to make up the party numbers, giving a total of 23 in HGLT's case.  

Finding 12 actors to take on speaking roles is not the easiest for an amateur production either – cost is an added problem for professionals – but HGLT managed it in some style which shows the strength and depth of this excellent company; then there are the names with Anya and Charlotte the only ones Western ears would recognise leaving the rest as what sound like the remnants of throat clearing.

Next it has the baggage it has carried since it was first performed in 1904. Chekov wrote it as a comedy, light hearted Russian humour (the Russians do have a somewhat darker sense of humour that we do) but Constantin Stanislavski the director of the first production in Moscow, decided it was a tragedy – a carry on property developer farce with social satire thrown in became a slash your wrist fest overnight.

So for more than a century directors and audiences have been unsure about whether to laugh or cry or both.

The basic tale is simple, Madame Liubov Andreievna Ranevskaya – see what I mean about the names – owns an estate with a beautiful cherry orchard but spends money and gives it away like it is going out of fashion so is heading towards bankruptcy and has to sell up the old family abode.

Meanwhile ex-serf made good Yermolai Alexeievitch Lopakhin tries to persuade Liubov to develop the estate for villas, which she refuses to do on the basis that something would turn up.

FATEFUL DAY

When the fateful day arrives for the sale any lingering hopes the auction would be cancelled are dispelled and the truth dawns on old Liubov and her family as they are turfed out of the ancestral pile.

All rib tickling stuff – in a Russian sort of way.

Hall Green stalwart Jean Wilde gives us a convincing performance as the flaky Russiam matriarch Liubov, unable to make up her mind about selling or developing, while  James Weetman is an ideal foil as the rough and ready Yermolai Alexeievitch Lopakhin, the self made man with not so much a chip as a whole sack of King Edwards on his shoulder.

He strides through the production in his leather boots flashing his wealth and humble origins as badges of pride, a little like a pre-revolutionary Russian Boysie from Only Fools and Horses.

Michael Nile also shows up well as the ineffectual, perpetually broke estate owner Boris Borisovich Simeonov-Pishchik whose life is a mix of fanciful money making ideas, inability to pay bills and requests for loans while Liubov's brother, Leonid Andreieveitch Gayev, is played with ineffectual style by Jon Richardson.

Leonid is an eccentric, which is aristocratis speak for nutter. He is trying hard in his own bumbling way to save the estate but has no idea of how to do it, is doing nothing about it but talk, and talk and talk . . .  and copes with any sort of stress by a collection of odd references to billiard shots – billiards being an obsession of his.

Then we have the perpetual student Peter Trofimov played impressively by 17-year-old Dan Beaton, with his wispy beard and dressed a little like a model for an army surplus store – revolutionary uniforms never change.

REVOLUTIONARY ZEAL

He perhaps lacked the impassioned, revolutionary zeal Chekov had envisaged as a symbol of Russian history in the making back in 1904 but showed real promise.

In Checkov's comedy, which was also a parody, Peter, who was in love with daughter Anya, was the symbol of the left wing unrest that was growing against the repressive autocracy under the Tsar, with the aristocrats shown as ineffectual, hedonists living a life of leisure on borrowed time and money. The play was performed a year before the failed Russian revolution of 1905, remember, seen as the beginning of what was to change the world in 1917.

Amy Leadbeter impresses as the maid Dunyasha, who in 1904 must have been a wakeup to Russian audiences as a maid who acted like one of the family, almost an equal rather than a lowly servant. She is in love with Yasha, a young manservant, played by Matt Ludlam.

She In turn is loved by the clumsy, nervous, lovelorn clerk Yepikhodov played with a nice touch of humour, squeaky boots and tuneless guitar playing by Sami Moghraby.

There were strong performances too from Rachel Pickard as Anya and Lucy Poulson as adopted daughter (we never know what she was adopted) Varya while Jaz Davison gave us a rather fun eccentric governess as Charlotte Ivanovna.

TIDE TURNED

And in the background we had the faithful, old (very) family retainer Firs, played by David Hirst, an anachronism from the days of serfdom clinging to the old ways like a limpet as the tide turned for ever.

At times the production lacked a little pace and never quite managed that sustained natural rhythm that carries all gently along before it, but this was opening night and there is time for that to develop.

I was not sure about the set by director Roy Palmer, which looked a little like a whitewashed vault in some gothic cathedral. A white, stepped roof and white curtained walls was pretty well it along with a bookcase and a few chairs.

All you could establish from the set, or at least the actors, was that we, the audience were sitting in the cherry orchard.

We are told we are in the nursery for act one but after that you are on your own guessing if we are in the grounds, the garden or wherever. The bookcase, for example, is laid on its front and looks to all intents and purposes as a bed, particularly when Dunyasha and Yasha, who may or may not be about to become lovers, are sitting on it but,  presumably it is supposed to be representing a seat in the grounds.

Along with names that never become familiar it is all a little confusing and does not help Roy Palmer's otherwise controlled direction which manages to keep the threads of Chekov's social comments separated as they run through the play and keeps everyone firmly on track towards the inevitable sad conclusion in what is an interesting production. To 26-05-12.

Roger Clarke

 

The production is dedicated to another HGLT stalwart  Mel Hulme who was to have been in the play but fell ill during rehearsals. Mel, actor, director, set builder and designer and anything else that was needed, was badgering his old friend Roy Palmer for information on how the play was going from his hospital bed. Mel died on May 10, a week and a day before the production opened. Not just as a bloke, but from the number of times his name appeared in production credits either onstage or behind the scenes, he is going to be missed. 

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