Chichester Festival Theatre, W. Sussex
Opened 23 May, 2008

Of the dozen principal players in Philip Franks’ Chekhov revival, the names of ten were familiar to me either as long-established stalwarts or outright stars, and I missed an eleventh which should have been. It hardly matters, then, that this actor-turned-director offers what would otherwise be a solid but unexceptional version of the piece (in Mike Poulton’s typically playable version of the text). The casting makes it exceptional.
Diana Rigg’s Mme Ranevskaya at first struck me as oddly hollow, giving little indication that she is truly experiencing the emotions she claims. I now believe that this is a deliberate choice: Rigg is showing a woman who has either forgotten or suppressed the ability to feel genuinely, with the sole moment excepted when she hears of the sale of her family estate. As Lopakhin, the self-made man who tries to advise Ranevskaya but in the end feels compelled to buy the estate himself, Michael Siberry is a slightly odd choice; a fine actor, but those familiar with his usual resonant tones will find that the estuarial accent he adopts here jars somewhat.
For the rest, there is little to do but namecheck. Ranevskaya’s brother Gayev, with his behavioural tic of reciting imaginary billiard shots, is a silver-maned William Gaunt. Frank Finlay is rather too dignified to dodder as elderly valet Firs, whereas John Nettleton is every inch the elderly, shabby-genteel scrounger as neighbour Simeonov-Pischik. Simon Scardifield is excellent as the eternal student Trofimov; Maureen Lipman plays governess Charlotta in a comic Russian accent and makes a deliberately mediocre fist of her sleights-of-hand. Jemma Redgrave does not get enough stage time to do more than sketch in the anguish of the lonely Varya, still waiting for Lopakhin’s proposal after years (it is a testimony to the production that, even after seeing so many productions, I thought for a second or two that this time he might actually get the words out); Paul Chahidi knows precisely how to pitch the irritating clumsiness of the clerk Yepikhodov, and Natalie Cassidy (Sonia from EastEnders) yelps as her heart is trampled on by footman Yasha. There may not be a profound sense of the passing of an entire social order, but certainly an awareness that a stage cast such as this may not be assembled again for an age to come.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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