Giles Croft wants you to know that he is leaving the building. After eighteen years in the top job at Nottingham Playhouse, The Cherry Orchard is his final production, and it’s a fitting choice. Chekhov’s final work for the theatre plays to Croft’s strengths with dialogue-heavy scripts and large ensemble casts, and its specific staging of the end of an era and the farewell to a long lived-in building couldn’t be more on the nose.
The Cherry Orchard itself is a tricky play. Even by Chekhov’s standards, the play is unusually focused on the problems of feckless rich people, and it’s easier to find characters to hate than to love; especially in Simon Stephens’s sweary adaptation, Graham Butler’s Yasha is a loathsome piece of work, whether toying with the maid or kicking the elderly butler to the floor. Jamie de Courcey gives a perfect, awkward performance as eternal student Peter, all elbows and jagged edges as he stands aloof in a house where he is only half-welcome. Alexander (John Elkington) appears to be the voice of reason during the first half, pleading with his friends to sell off the titular orchard in order to save themselves from losing everything; but after he himself buys the estate from under them, he begins exulting tastelessly in his own rise in status. Absorbed in their own problems and vindictive natures, the characters who wander in and out of the house rarely see the need to endear themselves to others.
At the heart of the play are the dilapidated house’s current owners, sister and brother Lyubov Ranevskaya (Sara Stewart) and Leonid (Robin Kingsland). Stewart and Kingsland do a highly effective job of capturing the duo’s naïve and irresponsible attitude to money, their carefree attitude and, ultimately, their disaster. So convincing are they in this that it becomes difficult to work out the production’s sympathies; their emotional reactions to losing their house are a high point of the production, but as their fate is so clearly self-imposed, it is hard to maintain much sympathy. Ranevskaya’s two daughters, Anya and (especially) Varya, are the true victims here, and Babirye Bukilwa does wonderful work with an often wordless role, showing Varya’s disgust and helplessness; and, when appropriate, bursting into a flaming rage.
As a comedy, there is much to enjoy. Patrick Osborne’s hapless Simeon is occasionally moving but mostly humorously pitiful in his attempts to get the others to notice him. Claire Storey repeatedly steals the show as the life-loving Charlotta, and Jonathan Oliver as the money-grabbing Boris is a suitably anarchic presence. But sometimes the more effective moments are the serious ones, as in Rob Goll’s magnificent brief appearance as a Traveller, marching into the house and demanding money. His earthy, deep-voiced presence offers a practical contrast to the fripperies of the rich, and while the extent to which he terrifies Varya is deplorable, he is a perfect prelude to the similarly grounded, if subtler, machinations of Alexander.
The play begins in Tim Meacock’s run-down set, lavishly decorated with fine pieces of furniture and a roof supported by columns. For acts 2 and 3, pieces of set are subtly removed, revealing more of the wings (where a full-scale dance sequence occurs barely in view, featuring a large cast of extras). But in the scene break between Acts 3 and 4, Croft makes his intentions clear. The overhead fluorescent lights of the scene dock snap on, and stage hands begin deconstructing the whole set, piling up flats and rostra in clear view of the stage. As Ranevskaya and Leonid and their family and attendants pack up to leave the house, they do so framed by a stage that has been stripped back to its bare bones. And as they leave, the house lights are turned on and the cast leave through the auditorium, Ranevskaya taking the time to comment on the memories she has had there. Like I said, Croft wants you to know he is leaving.
The quite extraordinary, melodramatic coda, however, is given to Kenneth Alan Taylor – himself previously artistic director of the Playhouse, and still custodian of the annual panto. As the muttering Firs, he is both consistently funny in himself and the butt of the play’s cruellest tricks as Yasha bullies him. But at the end, when it is revealed that Firs has not been sent to hospital but has been instead left in the boarded-up house to rot and die, Taylor’s presence offers a moving tribute to the Playhouse’s recent history. It’s a warm and shameless plea from Croft to remember the past as the future encroaches.
The Cherry Orchard is on at Nottingham Playhouse until November 18, 2017. Book tickets here.