Mary Couzens of EXTRA! EXTRA!

The Cherry Orchard at the Southwark Playhouse

Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, written in 1904 was his last and possibly, most autobiographical play.

As a child in Russia, Chekhov had holidayed in the countryside, near an orchard of cherry trees, and planted his own orchard in later life. His love of theatre was second only to his love of nature, trees in particular, which is also reflected in his play, Uncle Vanya. Although Chekhov viewed The Cherry Orchard as a comedy, it's premiere director, Konstantin Stanislavski, insisted on approaching the play as a dramatic tragedy, imbuing it with a bittersweet duality it has retained ever since.

It is the first of May, at the turn of the twentieth century when Madame Ranevskaya returns to her country home in Russia, with her seventeen year old daughter, Anya, her German governess, Charlotta, and elderly valet Yasha, after five years in Paris. Madame is so full of rapturous tales about her childhood, and her cherry orchard, which is 'the only thing of note' in the area, that she takes no notice of news of an upcoming auction to sell it to pay long-standing debts. She is a member of the crumbling aristocracy of Russia, amongst a growing middle-class, fifty years after the abolition of serfs, when a lack of cheap labour prohibited the continuation of gross profits.

The settings for the play are sparse, and thin branches projected on the walls seem to reflect the dwindling circumstances of Madame Ranevskaya. In reality, in May, the branches of her cherry trees would have been flushed with flowers. Madame's self-destructive lack of restraint when it comes to spending, the despite childish charm of her character in Chehkov's text, does little to inspire sympathy, particularly as Virginia Denham's performance seems rather hard-edged. Conversely, Marianne Oldham's Anya is light-spirited without a trace of her mother's frivolity, despite a pointed preference for intelligence over wealth in men. Colin Campbell gives a fine performance as Yepikhodov, the fellow with the dubious task of keeping Madame's books, as does Clive Moore as Lopakhin, the family friend with dubious motives. James Thorne is a stand out in the role of Trofilmov, the student with Bolshevik ideals as is Debra Penny as Madame's adopted daughter, Varya, who's been looking after the estate while her mother was abroad. Alex McSweeny adds humour as Yasha the valet, and his animated moments were most welcome in this rather one-dimensional rendering of Chekhov's classic.
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