Chekhov's Cherry Orchard bears a rich fruit

Review by Paul Nelson

THE masterpiece of Anton Chekhov is to my mind The Cherry Orchard, and it is getting a delightfully dressed and staged production by the much-admired company Logos at the Wimbledon Studio.

It also gets a new version by Pam Gems based on a translation by Tania Alexander, which, if you admire the play gives it some ups and downs.

The main thrust of Chekhov's prose fiction was always life's pathos caused by the absolute inability of people to respond to or even communicate with each other. A mood of sadness and almost despair arises out of this situation. His plays deal in the main with the passing of the Russian landed gentry and therefore his characters, helpless as they were before the changes which took place in 19th century Russia, take refuge in elaborate and impossible dreams of renewed prosperity.

The Cherry Orchard centres on just such an aristocratic family brought to penury by their extravagances which have continued even though the family fortune has long since been dissipated. Their only way out, as they are urged to do by businessman Lopakhin, son of one of the family's former serfs, is to sell the enormous cherry orchard and build summerhouses on the land to let at fantastic prices to the nouveau riche.

This the owner Madame Ranyevskaya refuses to do. She was brought up on the place, it has been her family home for years, and her little boy had drowned in the river. The place eventually has to go to auction and Lopakhin buys it. There is also the tender love story of Anya, the youngest daughter, and a perpetual student Pyotr Trofimov, played alongside the failure of the maid to get the footman and Varya, the adopted daughter to bring herself to marry the arriviste Lopakhin.

I found the play a bit hard to follow as all the names have been changed from the Constance Garnett translation that I was brought up on, and getting used to the new versions created hiatuses in my concentration. It is to the credit of the fine cast (Logos always seem to manage to get a lot of cream into their productions) that these lapses of mine were held to a minimum, but nevertheless they were there.

The direction of the play, very carefully thought out by its director, is on the slow side, and quite a lot of the comedy has been skated over by the author, almost as if she has deliberately wanted to write it as a social document in the style of GBS.

However, there is no way to portray either Yepichodov or Gayev and try to omit or play down the comedy and neither actor tries.

The result is a bumpy ride, for on the one hand you have the almost crazy governess Charlotta, another impecunious landowner Pischik, and the ambitious footman Yasha all playing the comic side of their characters to the hilt, and the silliness and sentimentality of Madame Ranyevskaya, supported by her children, and that creates an imbalance in the play. Chekhov himself was surprised that it turned out to be a comedy, though when one considers his hilarious short stories it is hard for the spectator to believe the play was ever meant to be serious in the first place. Possibly the instant delight and humour of seeing the play afresh had been ground out of it during the endless Stanislavski rehearsals. We may never know.

I therefore have to say I have seen the play performed with more hilarity, but rarely with so uniformly good a cast.

The fluttery, exasperating Madame Ranyevskaya is delightfully played by Carola Stewart, throwing her almost non-existent money all over the place. Her grief over both her lost son and the lost house and orchard were effectively controlled and played against her empty headedness. As her slightly turned brother Gayev (here referred to as Lenya), endlessly potting an imaginary billiard ball into an imaginary hole, and thinking no doubt about an imaginary jackpot on the way, Roger Sansom is excellent.

Mathew Brenher, last seen by me in the goriest production of Titus Andronicus at BAC, proves himself a first-rate protagonist and actor. He knocked out all the nastiness most actors revel in when playing the part, and all to the good. He presented a rounded character, beautifully out of his depth in matters of the heart. Varya, the object of his affection, of which he is not sure, was equally played with strength and expertise by Emma Stratton.

The lovers, Anya and Pyotr, the former surely one of the current beauties of the English stage, played with charm, fun and pathos by Cicely Tennant, the latter, all spent political idealism and held up in his poverty by his own attractive personality, played by Hugo Cox.

Good strong and satisfying performances were given to the footman and maid, Yasha (William Argent) and Dunyasha (Victoria Fradgley). That almost impossible character to play, Charlotta, was expertly seen off by Hilary Burns and excellent work from Steve Dineen and director Bryan Hands gave real life to Yepichodov and Pischik.

All in all an evening to remember.

Once last credit that must be given is to the character of Firs the faithful old retainer. Playing an 87-year-old, 84-year-old Kenneth McClellan, founder of the company, played what, for me, is the final joke of the play with a delightful twinkle in his eye. It is a superbly funny ending to the play and always cracks me up. Logos has done it again; long may this excellent company thrive.

The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov, in a new version by Pam Gems, original translation by Tania Alexander. Directed by Bryan Hands, Designed by Katy Clarke, Costumes by Didi Chapman, Lighting by Hannah Kester, Dance Direction by Louise Raphael WITH Matthew Brenher (Lopakhin), Victoria Fradgley (Dunyasha), Kenneth McClellan (Firs), Steve Dineen (Yepichodov), Carola Stewart (Lyubov Andreyevna Ranyevskaya), Cicely Tennant (Anya), Emma Stratton (Varya), Roger Sansom (Lenya, Leonid Andreyevich Gayev), Hilary Burns (Charlotta), Bryan Hands (Pischik), William Argent (Yasha), Hugo Cox (Pyotr Borisovitch Trofimov), John Barrett (Passer-by), Stewart Quentin Holmes (Postmaster), and Binkie Beaumont (Charlotta's Dog). Produced by Logos Theatre Company at Wimbledon Studio Theatre, The Broadway, London SW19 Tickets 020 8540 0362

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