THE CHERRY ORCHARD **** ROYAL LYCEUM THEATRE, EDINBURGH THE MINISTRY OF FEAR **** CITIZENS' THEATRE, GLASGOW JOURNEY'S END **** BRUNTON THEATRE, MUSSELBURGH
IT IS March 1979, and following the inconclusive referendum result on its plan for Scottish devolution, Callaghan's Labour government is tottering. The Tories are riding high, under the increasingly confident leadership of Margaret Thatcher; and as the opposition parties force through a vote of no confidence, and the general election is called, the idea of Scottish home rule is swept off the political agenda, not to return for a long 18 years.
It's typical of the boldness of John Byrne's new version of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard for the Royal Lyceum Theatre – perhaps the most successful of all that theatre's Chekhov updates so far – that he dares to set it at the most painful and sensitive turning-point in recent Scottish political history.
The historical fit with Chekhov's story of a dying landed class and those who circle around it cannot be perfect, of course. Yet the sense of an old order being swept away by a new age of brutal entrepreneurship and cash-driven pragmatism is well captured in the tension between the lovely Perthshire landowner Mrs Ramsay-Mackay and her useless brother Guy – here portrayed as a snobbish and silly Tory toff in plus-fours – and the up-and-coming businessman Malcolm McCracken, once an estate servant, now increasingly in a position to buy up the whole county. And the 1979 setting is also particularly powerful in capturing the sense of an ancient physical landscape about to be ravaged by unprecedented levels of development and exploitation, as the long economic boom of the Thatcher-Major-Blair years begins.
It's not only for its sharp fit with recent Scottish politics that this production is likely to be remembered, though. For under Tony Cownie's direction, it also achieves the remarkable feat of forging a direct link between the more comic and absurd elements of Chekhov's vision – often suppressed in conventional British productions – and the kind of popular comic impulse that shapes Byrne's most famous work, from The Slab Boys to Tutti Frutti.
In the miserable, misfiring lives of characters like the lovestruck clerk Yepihodov – reimagined here as Sorley Shanks, a local misfit in terrible flares – Byrne is able to find a direct link to the kind of ill-starred characters that people his own plays. The result is often hilarious, with Grant O'Rourke's ghastly Shanks often coming close to stealing the show.
It has to be said there are risks, and perhaps a few misjudgments, attached to Byrne's version of the text, including a slight tendency to play up to the self-belittling idea – strangely resurgent in current theatre – that Scottishness is comic in itself. By and large, though, this production is blessed with a cast that can effortlessly convey their Scottish identity without limiting their dramatic range.
Maureen Beattie's Mrs Ramsay-Mackay (Ranevskaya) is a masterpiece of elegance and warmth, a memorable portrait of an intelligent and passionate woman not quite strong enough to save her family from economic oblivion. Hannah Donaldson and Matthew Pidgeon are superb as the young lovers, Ainsley and Trotter; she the posh girl in full rebellion against the old world of her family, he a classic 1970s left-wing radical, arrogant, idealistic and out of touch. And if Andrew Clark's McCracken could afford to be a little less of a raucous brute and a little more of a dreamer, he still embodies the future with memorable force – a future where cash is king, where love fails and where neither the new world of which Trotter dreams, nor the old world in which the Ramsay-Mackays once effortlessly ruled, has any more chance of survival than a beautiful but unproductive old orchard in the path of a new motorway.
If Byrne's Cherry Orchard marks another step in Scotland's effort to come to terms with its own history, it's good to see two young English companies on tour in Scotland this week with shows inspired by two great pieces of writing about the major wars that shaped English and British history in the 20th century. Graham Greene's Ministry Of Fear, first published in 1943, is a strange, almost hallucinatory wartime thriller about an ordinary man caught up in a terrifying political and psychological adventure involving a Nazi fifth column in England. At the Citizens' Theatre this week, Theatre Alibi from Exeter give it a deft and fast-moving stage interpretation, sometimes alarmingly jokey – in a dark Ealing comedy kind of way – but often both chilling and moving, and illuminated throughout by Thomas Johnson's terrific, moody modern jazz score, played live on stage by Nick Laughlin on double bass and Adam Cross on sax and clarinet.
The Icarus Theatre Collective of London, meanwhile, are on tour with a strong and deeply moving production of RC Sherriff's great play Journey's End, set over 24 hours in an officers' dugout near the Western Front during the First World War. Sherriff's play makes no bones about the limitations of the characters it portrays: the terror they feel, the drink they need to get them through, the class attitudes that surround their life and work. But it is also relentless in its exposure of the pitiful waste of life in a war that made some English attitudes – and some key aspects of British society – impossible to sustain, and in Alistair Whatley's fine production there are outstandingly subtle, heartfelt performances from Graham Seed, Tom Hackney and Christopher Harper as the three officers at the centre of this magnificent story, about a war that did not end all wars, but changed everything.
• The Cherry Orchard is at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, until 8 May. The Ministry of Fear is at the Citizens' Theatre, Glasgow, until Saturday. Journey's End is at the Byre Theatre, St Andrews, 30 April and 1 May.