views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The Cherry Orchard
Jack Studio Theatre
17th July 2014

★★★★☆

John Sears as Firs

Photography © Scott Rylander

It wouldn't be a Chekhov play without a great deal of people doing a great deal of nothing. In The Cherry Orchard, his final work, a cast of 15 attack class divides and address social change, largely by quaffing champagne and strolling through the grounds of a wealthy and old estate. It's not exactly a "We are the 99%" protest, but the playwright's style was always more subtle than that.

The script, as set in the early 1900s and adapted into English by Brendan Murray, sees Ranyevskaya (Julia Faulkner) and her daughters Anya (Emma Kemp) and Varya (Helen Keeley) living under the threat of eviction. They may be part of the aristocracy, but even the rich have bills to pay, and Ranyevskaya has neglected to deal with theirs. Her brother, Gaev (Graham Christopher) is equally broke, as is family friend Pishchik (Bryan Pilkington), who spends much of his time pestering people for loans.

Although Varya and Dunyasha (Victoria Sye) are supposedly classes apart, Varya is the one who spends her time working hard, trying desperately to balance the dwindling books, whilst Dunyasha swans around the house, swooning and complaining how sensitive she is. With both women vaguely similar in appearance, all it would take is a simple swap of clothing to confuse who is meant to be the upper-class lady and who is the servant. Charlotta (Cathy Conneff) too is also one of the help, working as a governess, but her demeanour too suggests she's something far grander.

The fact that so many characters don't seem to fit their description makes it initially difficult to get to grips with the large number of people wandering on and off stage. But this at least does fit into Chekhov's intention of deliberately confusing the different parts, mocking the arbitrary divide of rich and poor. The action is set in what is meant to be a noble house, but it seems more like a halfway house for every man and his dog.

These characters form the emotional core of the piece. Yepikhodov (Nic McQuillan) brings humour as the village idiot, chasing after Dunyasha and causing accidental destruction in his wake. Firs (John Sears) is also a figure of fun, shuffling around slowly, constantly repeating himsef ("half-baked, you are"). However, there's also a lot of sadness in how he dotes on Ranyevskaya and her family and yet is ignored and eventually forgotten. Despite his loyalty and his obvious mental decline, Firs is essentially discarded by those meant to be his betters.

The action unfolds over six months, plenty of time to save the estate and indeed over this period. Frequent visitor Lopakhin (Henry Everett) - a serf turned businessman - repeatedly advises Ranyevskaya on how to dig herself out of the ever-widening hole. However, she doesn't take him seriously, making his ultimate involvement in her downfall the most meaningful. We both criticise and sympathise with Faulkner's character - she is ridiculous but also inherently unhappy.

The Cherry Orchard can be interpreted in a number of ways, but Matthew Parker chooses to direct this as a tragicomedy. This is a satisfying way to stage the piece, particularly with the addition of music. John Fricker and Alice Coles have minor walk-on parts, but they primarily perform together as the Jewish band, their live accompaniment really elevating the production. When the ensemble add their voices, there's a wonderful poignancy and elegance - musical director and composer Maria Haïk Escudero keeps a sense of sadness in the background of the score at all times.

Elegance is also mirrored in the staging, with the ceiling covered in sprawling branches and blooms. Rachel Ryan's design is not only aesthetically beautiful, but underlines the importance of the cherry orchard to the play. The orchard becomes a symbol of Ranveyska's inaction, of her inability to save herself, and by being ever-present, Chekhov's message looms over us.

At around two hours including an interval, this is a good length to do justice to Chekhov's swansong and DogOrange's adaptation is stylishly executed, with some fantastic acting and still a relevant piece over a century on.

The Cherry Orchard ran from 15th July to 2nd August 2014 at the Jack Studio Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Crofton Park (National Rail)



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