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FringeReview UK 2024

Low Down

It’s been there all along; occasionally it emerges. But never has the music that so suffuses Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard – here adapted and directed by Benedict Andrews at the Donmar till June 22nd – been given such rein.

In this production, it’s Chekhov who shines.


Adapted and Directed by Benedict Andrews, Set Designer Magda Willi, Costume Designer Merle Hensel, Lighting Designer James Farncombe, Sound Designer Dan Balfour, Composer May Kershaw, Musical Director Zac Gvi, Voice Coach William Conacher, Assistant Director Neetu Singh,

Casting Director Anna Cooper CDG, Production Manager Ben Arkell, Costumer Supervisor Rosy Emmerich, Props Supervisor Lara Flowers for Lisa Buckley, CSM Alex Constantin, DSM Sophie Rubinstein, ASM Zaineb Aamir, Stage Management Intern Jessica Crabtree

Till June 22nd


It’s been there all along; occasionally it emerges. But never has the music that so suffuses Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard – here adapted and directed by Benedict Andrews at the Donmar till June 22nd – been given such rein.

May Kershaw’s compositions with a band led by Zac Gvi instruments both the play and audience response. And reconfigured seating allows such interactions as being hoiked up into a dance, or being addressed as a bookcase.

Bookcases are both human and platonic anyway, as a contemporary setting (Trofimov is up-to-the-Zizek-minute) eschews most props on this diminutive stage. It incidentally makes a nonsense of June Watson’s magnificent Firs Nikolavena’s mutterings about freedom from serfdom.

It’s a more subtle contemporaneity though than Andrews’ 2012 Three Sisters at the Young Vic, with (for instance) its model flying drone.

Magda Willi’s set is neither contemporary not quite period; but in its geometric aplomb with Suffolk pink floor and upstage wall, it gestures to Egyptian hieroglyphics in a cusp of Symbolist/Art Deco crossover circa 1920.

Music though is never far off. Such an approach highlights servant Dunyasha (Posy Sterling) as a slinky cabaret singer given more agency than usual here; and even her “walking catastrophe” of a suitor Yepikhodov (Eanna Hardwicke) can strum, haplessly. Guitars and drums pose to invade the tiny space. Better them than bulldozers.

What the production’s setting lacks is a sense that one set of people has remained, one left to return as sun-glassed revenants. Nearly everyone’s dressed for holiday bar Firs, including ambitious uber-cool Yasha (Natan Armarkwei Laryea) lip-curling scorn and with a musical timing that bespeaks his knowing when to jump onto a departing bandwagon.

Though Sterling is a big presence, her interactions with Hardwicke are given more opportunity to bite. Though warned by Lopakhin ”you’re not one of them” this Dunyasha seems just too cool to suffer long. As does Charlotta (Sarah Amankwah) magicking a series of circus-taught tricks as if they come out of nowhere, as she claims she does. Her final trick though is devastating, playing on vanishing babies, right in front of Ranevskaya. It bespeaks a virtuosic misery.

Ranevskaya (Nina Hoss) is both youthful and rootless: attached sentimentally to an idea of home but in fact to the part of it she truly lost when her son drowned near the cherry orchard. Hoss manages the undertow superbly, the real grief and guilt (tragedy struck during a tryst with her lover) sublimated with sentiment for place and those she’s left stuck there. Guilt to a degree informs her subtle profligacy, handing out wads to all, repeatedly commenting on how hopeless she is with money: as if celebrating it.

Charlotta’s nasty trick is prefigured inadvertently, by tactless Trofimov (Daniel Monks) got up as usual like Trotsky’s country cousin and fantastically mansplaining in long paragraphs that usually get truncated a bit. Not here, where he litanises generations of suffering to graft cherry blossoms.

Trofimov actually reminds Ranevskaya he was her son’s tutor as an opening gambit. But then even to a joyous, demonstrative Anya (Sadie Soverell) he reminds her of “the human cost of your privilege” several times over, which castigation seems only to turn her on. Despite referencing Zizek, Trofimov is unreconstructed pre-revolutionary, not a reader of Grace Blakeley’s post-Marxism. Monks invests Trofimov with just that edge of a man helpless before emotion, brattishly batting it away.

Soverell’s a huge burst of optimism and warmth, highlighting Trofimov’s “above love” idiocy rightly scorned by Ranevskaya, cruelly commenting on his receding hairline (not present in Monks). Andrews has found the right clipped preppiness for Anya’s speech-patterns, as he does elsewhere.

Despite her shades, this shrewd Anya blazes with hugs for all. She’s particularly close to inward, nagging but harassed Varya (Marli Siu). Reminded of her “birth-mother” by Ranevskaya, another Bountiful put-down, and how Lopakhin’s a good match, Varya’s pushed back to her perceived roots. This Varya is trenchantly unillusioned, ready to give up till Ranevskaya persuades her, cruelly, to hope otherwise.

But the solicitude between Siu and Soverell is by far the tenderest love expressed as Varya rolls Anya gently over and over to get her comfortable as she falls asleep, heedless of Varya’s account of homeless sleeping.

The men are sad-alone clowns. Not just Yepikhodov, but feckless near-bankrupt landowner Pishchik, (David Ganly) a pith-artist with shoulder-tapping for ‘loans’ at his fingertips: till suddenly, honourably, he isn’t. Ganly’s interventions though are made more of, a rounded drunken superfluity.

Gaev (Mchael Gould) is a masterpiece of logorrhea, swirling people up as bookcases and making long speeches to them. But Gould brings out the underlying pain of self-recognition, since unlike Pishchik Gaev knows himself too well, seems genuinely rooted in things his sister merely gestures at. There’s a different superfluity, the blathering of a man just aware enough of how futile he is.

Adeel Akhtar though bestrides Lopakhin like a demon of industry on holiday, almost benign in his various warnings, till he can bear it no more as deadlines for the auction of the cherry orchard approach. His active performance really convinces you this man’s powers are both part of the new and at the same time Stalin-doomed Kulak class; though again what Russia this is, is suspended. There’s a quiet rasp to his warnings: he’s only stymied when urged to propose.

Yet his energy almost impels him; Varya’s doubts visibly lift for a moment, with exquisite painfulness.

The chord striking through the second act with a huge thwunk serves as counterpoint to the jamboree the ensemble instinctively draw towards. And there’s a striking reveal with the set.

There’s a memorable vignettes from Alfie Tempest as the Homeless Boy, and the musicians lap at the stage: Adam Beattie, Neil Charles, Stefano Franco, Daisy George, Emanuela Monni, Yshani Perinpanayagam, Innes Yellowlees.

Andrews’ speech-patterns differ for several characters and the cast are exemplary in realising nuance as well as freshness, detail with truth. The curious mix of 1904, 1920 and 2024 doesn’t matter so much across two hours 45: we’re stuck with Chekhov and in this production, it’s Chekhov who shines.