BWW Review: THE CHERRY ORCHARD, Arcola Theatre

This production is part of the Arcola's Revolution Season, planned when the only revolution contemplated was a century and 1500 miles distant. Since then, need I say, revolutions of a kind have ripped through UK and US polity and Chekhov, as usual, finds a voice to communicate with an audience wrestling with new anxieties and new fears - and with new "orchards" being chopped down before their very eyes.

I'm pretty sure I saw my first Cherry Orchard in the West End in the mid-80s, when "The Orchard" was a Perestroika-era Russia (as usual) but also a post-industrialising Britain, its smokestacks being bulldozed literally by demolition men and metaphorically by the barrow boys newly emboldened by The City's Big Bang switch to electronic, frictionless, borderless financial trading. (And we all know how that fairytale ended). 30 years on - 103 years since it was written - the play's relevance is as sharp as ever.

Mme Ranevsky has returned to her Russian estate six years after fleeing to Paris after her child drowned. She is a unabashed feckless aristocrat, who spends money like water. Now, at long last, the tap has run dry as her brother, Leon, never fails to remind her - though he's a hopeless blowhard and lazy to boot.

Lopakhin, the wealthy landowner son of emancipated serfs, offers them a way out, proposing to help them parcel up the estate and build dachas for the burgeoning bourgeoisie - anathema to the proud Mme Ravensky, who cannot contemplate the felling of the orchard. But the times, they are a changin, and while servants grow restive and young people are more concerned with revolutionary ideas and romance than money, Lopakhin makes his move to purchase the estate and build his own dachas - after all, it's just another business deal to him.

Sian Thomas gives us a matriarch weak in the face of the world shifting under her feet, wallowing in nostalgia, but, unable to make the compromises (financially or socially) to retain some of her past, she ends up losing it all - like the Romanoffs would 13 years after the play premiered. Jude Akuwudike plays Lopakhin with a Cockney accent and white van man swagger, insecure in his peasant past, but convinced of his moneyed future. (He was right to be - until Stalin saw off the Kulaks with an unprecedented brutality ten or so years into The Communist Revolution).

There's strong work from the support cast, in which Ryan Wichert excels as Yasha, Mme Ranevsky's wide boy valet yearning to return to the bright lights of Paris and Robin Hooper delivers a nice turn as senile butler Firs, longing for the simpler days when masters were masters and serfs were serfs.

On a sparse set, director Mehmet Ergen pares the work back to its actors speaking, sighing and seething as the tide of history picks them up and tosses them down on different shores. Trevor Griffiths' adaptation seems to play the comedy dimension above the tragedy in Chekhov's notorious blurring of genres - but I think that may be me. The empirical fact is that the older I get, the funnier I find Chekhov's stuff, hollow though that laughter may be - speaking to fellow theatregoers, it seems I'm not alone.

The reaction the play still provokes, all these years on, demonstrates its power and, while some will wince at yet another evening spent agonising about that bloody orchard yet again, I don't. It tells me, with wit and wisdom, a hard truth. Change is the only game in town and the enemy of Change is complacency - sit back and think you have the right for things to be ordered the way they always have been, and someone else will come along with more energy, a clearer message and more money and you'll find life is most definitely a bowl of cherries no longer.

The Cherry Orchard continues at the Arcola Theatre until 25 March.



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From This Author Gary Naylor