Sunday, 10 October 2021

REVIEW: The Cherry Orchard at the Windsor Theatre Royal

As lockdown struck in 2020 the Harold Pinter Theatre was presenting a wonderful adaptation of Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya with an all-star ensemble cast and a dramatic evocative staging and witty modernisation of the language. It made the classic period piece seem relevant and exciting and emotionally engaging. As the first Lockdown eased Bill Kenwright announced a bold programming plan to assemble a repertory company of high-quality actors to stage two classics, Hamlet and Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard with gender-, colour-, and age-blind casting. It sounded an exciting basis to reopen his Windsor Theatre Royal but further lockdowns have delayed the project until 2021. His Hamlet has now come and gone, and the Cherry Orchard has now opened and will run until 13th November. As they note in the programme Hamlet broke box office records (despite some mixed reviews) as many like us booked on the basis of Ian McKellen’s name alone, but Cherry Orchard may prove a tougher sell.

Sean Mathias again directs with a set design by Lee Newby and an adaption by Martin Sherman but from the start you question the underlying creative concept behind their production. They again put the audience on either side of the stage for no obvious reason except to increase capacity but in their brightly coloured clothes and blue face masks, they become a massive distraction when your attention drifts from the action on stage which in this three-hour show it often does. Whereas the Uncle Vanya staging created an evocative theatrical setting for that show, the design here is half baked. A pale grey sketchy floor and audience seating create a cartoonish setting with a rear door flown in to symbolise indoor scenes and flown out to create outdoor locations. The rear wall of the stage is whitewashed but the effect is to highlight the wires and holes in it which keep catching your eyes. When they open the stage access door to create a visible offstage space for servants, they too become a distraction to the on-stage words. Curiously the bare indoor floor of the nursery is covered with rugs and cushions when the story takes us outside. The Cherry Orchard itself is viewed through the fourth wall and chopped down behind the main auditorium. Only the sound effects of birds, horse-drawn carriage and chopping add any sense of realism to the setting.

What makes it even harder to engage with is the production can’t make its mind whether it trying to send up and spoof Chekov or make it more modern and accessible. Too often it feels they have drawn inspiration from a Two Ronnie’s sketch or Victoria Wood’s Acorn Antiques with Ian McKellen delivering drinks as if a male version of Mrs Overall. Indeed, our greatest Shakespearean actor plays the ancient retainer Firs for laughs throughout, mumbling his words, drifting off in his delivery and shaking his head in confused senility. When he bumbles along in the background you naturally watch him rather than listen to speakers on stage. Many others seem to take inspiration from this, or are directed to do so, and play it with their tongues in cheeks, sending up the characters. Robert Daws plays the drunken bumptious Pishchik as a larger-than-life fool bouncing around the stage in an exaggerated fashion. Jenny Seagrove swaps gender to play Uncle Gaev as a rather rigid detached man throwing around billiard references that pass unnoticed. Martin Shaw plays the self-made rich merchant like a north of England mill owner wrapping up his commercial instincts in a genial bonhomie to save the family from the financial disaster in front of them. Curiously he becomes the most sympathetic and engaging character. 

The central character of Ranyevskaya the landowner representing the old Russian families is played by Francesca Annis and she serenely glides on and off stage in beautiful costumes but fails to emotional connect with us, so we don’t care whether she loses the cherry orchard or not. With the huge characters around her, she does not dominate her scenes in the way Zoe Wanamaker did in the 2011 National Theatre version and we don’t feel her affection for, and loss at the chopping down of, the Orchard. 

The supporting cast is a confusing array of family members, servants and locals but as directed there is no differentiation between servants and masters, they eat, drink and dance together. There is no sense of a resentful underclass about to turn the nation on its head with the Revolution even from the student Trofimov played by Ben Allen. He is more a love forlorn perpetual student. Many of the scenes have a succession of non sequitur statements where characters are speaking but no one is listening as they are on a different train of thought. 

As Ranyevskaya says “Cut down the Cherry Orchard? You have to be joking, it’s the only thing worth seeing in the entire county” but we felt that this Cherry Orchard did need cutting down and cutting out some of the jokings to justify the trip along the M4 to see this cast, all of whom have delivered more compelling performances in previous productions. I prefer to remember Sir Ian McKellen for his extraordinary King Lear, or his brilliant one-man show of recent years than his latest Hamlet or Firs but nevertheless like so many others will book as soon as he announces his next production! On this showing, perhaps a return to Pantomime!

Review by Nick Wayne

Rating: ★★

Seat: Circle Row O | Price of Ticket: £55
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