Haymarket Theatre, Basingstoke/touring
Opened 9 February, 1999

Well, it was asking for it. Any production of The Cherry Orchard whose programme includes a full page of quotes from Chekhov protesting that the play is "a comedy, in places even a farce" demands to have a tally kept of the number of decent, full-audience laughs it elicits; when one of those quotes condemns the dragging out to forty minutes of "[a final] act which ought to last for a maximum of twelve", it would be cowardly not to whip out one's stopwatch to see how this version does. On the second score, Mike Alfreds's production (the first touring show in Method & Madness's millennial 20>21 Vision project) splits the difference and comes in at just over twenty-five minutes; bustle and elegy are more or less balanced as the Ranevskys leave their estate for the last time to be converted into holiday homes by the arriviste Lopakhin.

However, when I saw the show in Basingstoke, the isolated rumbles of audience chuckling broke into outright laughter barely a dozen times; in an evening which lasts over two and a half hours including interval, this is not an indicator of successful comedy, and the fact that most of those laughs were concentrated on a single actor (Antony Ryding, doubling as nerdish bookkeeper Yepikhodov and impecunious neighbour Simeonov-Pishchik) is cause for further worry. It is not enough to dress the set playfully, as Peter McKintosh has, in primary-coloured ladders and step-stools to suggest both the orchard of the title and the nursery in which the first and last acts are set; nor is it sufficient, as Alfreds does, to omit all definite and indefinite articles in your translation and have your cast speak in comedy-Russian accents. (Why, in God's name? Would he do A Midsummer Night's Dream in cod-Athenian or hee-haw-hee-haw his way through Molière?)

This is an uncharitable view of a production which, at root, simply fails to square the circle by reconciling the obligations it feels to be both comic and Chekhovian at once. Eliot Giuralarocca's servant Yasha looks and moves with humorous vanity, but speaks and behaves with a far less pleasant strain thereof; from the midst of Nigel Whitmey's affable, almost unobtrusive Lopakhin bursts a curious mix of elation, guilt and anger as he acquires the estate thanks to the Ranevskys' dithering. The conflict is perhaps most apparent in Jane Arnfield's portrayal of adopted daughter and housekeeper Varya: tugged in one direction by the sadnesses of domestic disintegration and in the other by the absurdity of her diffident non-courtship with Lopakhin, Arnfield (who can wring riotous comedy out of a stone or even out of Ibsen, as she showed a few years ago in Volcano Theatre Company's How To Live) can here do little more than gesticulate helplessly. You can see what Alfreds's production is aiming for, but mostly it paws the air frantically, its target tantalisingly just out of reach.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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