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BWW Review: THE CHERRY ORCHARD, Theatre Royal Windsor

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Sir Ian McKellen brings a stellar cast to Windsor to deliver The Cherry Orchard, as relevant as ever.

BWW Review: THE CHERRY ORCHARD, Theatre Royal Windsor

BWW Review: THE CHERRY ORCHARD, Theatre Royal Windsor We're back in the big Russian house with its big cherry orchard, this time in the company of a big name cast for Sir Ian McKellen's second show of his Autumn season, sliding along the playwrights' pantheon from Shakespeare to Chekhov. With Windsor Castle just outside the door and Windsor Great Park on the horizon, one hardly needed the Harry and Meghan commemorative mugs in gift shop windows to catch the zeitgeist surfing by.

Madame Ranyevskaya has returned from Paris, aware that she is broke, but not aware of how to stop spending money she does not have. Lopakhin, son of a peasant, grandson of a Ranyevskaya serf, has built up a fortune and has the money the aristocrat needs. She has a cherry orchard that could be developed into dachas and make more than enough money for both of them. To chop or not to chop? That is the question.

Francesca Annis is a perfect matriarch, regal and foolish, yet vested with enough vulnerability for us to empathise with her plight, even as we blame her for her stubborn stupidity. Annis shows flashes of dismissive cruelty, but we can still see the woman who once washed the blood from the boy Lopakhin's face, and so we feel for her loss - she, at least, did not advise the peasants to eat cake. If anything, the veteran actress's charisma leans us a little too far towards her and away from a self-made man given nothing who has bootstrapped his way to prosperity.

In this, director, Sean Mathias, possibly gets a key scene wrong, inviting Martin Shaw to play the ex-peasant businessman a little too drunk and a little too exultant in bringing the news that he has bought the orchard at auction. Though we catch glimpses of an Oedipal love that may prevent Lopakhin from cruelly refraining from proposing to Varya, the adopted daughter of Mme Ranyevskaya, this scene chipped away an important element of his character, a layer of personal history that overlays the social conflict. Lopakhin may be ruthless and avenging the lot of his ancestors, but glee seems a bit over the top.

In a fantastic support cast, Lee Knight shines as the splendidly rude alpha-male servant, Yasha, who knows the time will be soon when he can take everything he wants, not just what he can get his hands on. It's also pleasing to see Alis Wyn Davies veer away from a giggly schoolgirlish Dunyasha and borrow some of Yasha's agency over her own life. Of course, McKellen himself has a lot of fun with old retainer, Firs, with a beard so grand it's surely wearing him rather than the other way round. There's a few red wall voters might recognise themselves there.

Martin Sherman's adaptation doesn't convince entirely, though he does get the contextual exposition out of the way as early as possible. Loren Elstein's beautiful costumes create a wonderful sense of time and place aided by Nick Richings' catching of the summer light at northerly latitudes, but "She crazy about you" sounded more Montana than Moscow - and it wasn't the only jarringly contemporary phrase.

It's an all-time great play, one that speaks to any time in which it is performed and this handsome production is no different. Though I'd have liked to see the otherwise excellent programme include a note about Russian naming conventions (never easy for English ears to navigate), this is a fine night out, a chance to see some great actors and a play that, unlike the orchard itself, lives on in one's mind long after the the axe, sorry, curtain, falls.

The Cherry Orchard is at the Theatre Royal Windsor until 13 November

Read Gary Naylor's Beginner's Guide to Chekhov

Photo Jack Merriman


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