The Cherry Orchard @ Greenwich Playhouse, London

cast list
Maggie Daniels, Ashley David, Jason Denyer, Nik Drake, Suzanne Goldberg, Tara Hart, Hugh Hemmings, Nicholas Karpenko, Clare McMahon, Robert Paul, Fleur Shepherd, Richard Unwin

directed by
Bruce Jamieson
With the Greenwich Playhouse and Galleon Theatre Company celebrating their fifteenth and twentieth birthdays this year, the two have come together to stage Anton Chekhovs final play, The Cherry Orchard.

Witten in 1904, it considers how both the aristocracy and former serfs have fared since Russias emancipation of the latter in 1861. By exploring several characters from both classes, it considers how neither has really confronted the challenges that the rapidly changing society has presented.

The penniless Ranyevskaia (a splendid Maggie Daniels) epitomises the aristocratic figure who buries her head in the sand.
She left Russia for five years following the deaths of her husband and son, but as the play starts she is returning, this time escaping from problems that she encountered in Paris. Richard Unwins Pishchik represents the type of aristocrat who is oblivious to financial realities, spending wildly beyond his means, and relying entirely on something coming up (such as a railway being built across his land) in order to gain money.

Similarly, none of the characters from former serf families have worked to create a more just society. Lopakhin (Robert Paul) has become a capitalist who ends up buying Ranyevskaias estate, suggesting that one aristocratic type has merely been replaced by another. Similarly, the servant Feers (Hugh Hemmings) recalls how his family, when presented with freedom, chose not to take it because they were well enough off as servants.

Only one character stands out as markedly different. This is the eternal student, Trofimov, who proclaims that he is driven by values other than money, and seems willing to confront societys harsh realities. In spite of a superb performance by Nik Drake, however, this character also exposes several weaknesses in the production.

The plays analysis of Russian society is vested largely in several key speeches that Trofimov makes, supplemented by the information that we receive as the other characters exchange views. Because, however, Chekhov is so skilful at using the words to explain everything that we need to grasp, any production needs either to shed new light on the characters or arguments, or to use the basic material to create a particularly emotive experience.

This production seems stronger at working with the compact nature of the Greenwich Playhouse, than at saying anything new about the characters. Sara Gianfrates restrained set, consisting of a white backdrop with cherry tree motifs and a black floor stained with red cherry blossom, works well in the small space. In the first half, however, it generates an equally measured approach to the drama as a whole, which stifles the emotional impact of the piece.

Things do pick up after the interval, however, as we connect with Ranyevskaias sense of emptiness at losing her beloved cherry orchard, and feel sickened by the shallowness and blindness of the characters who lose everything and end up on top alike. This, coupled with some excellent individual performances in a beautiful little theatre space, make the evening more than worthwhile, even if it takes rather a long time to get going.

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