Sharp show has pick of laughs and tears

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The Cherry Orchard ****

The Royal Lyceum

DEVILISHLY funny and consistently adventurous, Benchtours’ new touring production of Chekhov’s final play arrives at the Lyceum with mischief on its mind and entertainment in the air.

Comedy is not usually the first thing to be associated with Chekhov, although he did call the Cherry Orchard "a comedy in four acts", a claim somewhat undermined by his wife’s reaction to the play - she was in tears by the end of the first-ever production.

Yet Gerry Mulgrew, the Communicado director in his first production with Benchtours, is firmly on the side of comedy in any debate over the way the play should be performed. Tragedy might underlie its events, but the way they fall out is intrinsically comic.

And the success of this interpretation, although dependent on the strong acting of the cast, is given weight by two long-time Benchtours collaborators.

Laura Hopkins’ set design, with revolving, mirrored doors, frees the cast up to bring out elements of knock-about slapstick, while her costumes are strong reinforcements of characterisation.

Then Alan Tall, who also performs in the production, has composed the music which punctuates it perfectly. At its most powerful when it is performed live on stage, the music serves to give some of the more soulful and tragic elements an edge when they are needed, dramatically, in the proceedings.

There is no denying the tragedy of the situation of the fading aristocrat Ranyevsky. It’s early summer and she has just returned from five years self-imposed exile in Paris to her Russian estate, to find it in financial disarray.

There’s only one option, according to the uncouth local businessman Lopakhin: cut the orchard down, parcel up the land and lease it out for summer cottages. Whoops! Wrong suggestion from an ex-serf. Ranyevsky’s in love with her past and can’t stand the future that early 20th-century Russia is about to face.

Everyone else is too busy having romantic affairs to pay any real heed to Lopakhin’s realism. And even he can’t make up his mind whether or not to marry Ranyevsky’s adopted daughter and manager of the estate, Varya.

In order to make the comedy play, the production needs strong straight performances for these central three characters. Catherine Gillard as Ranyevsky is the closest of the three to being comic, with her flowing take on a fading upper-class woman exactly right.

Stewart Ennis as Lopakhin and Deborah Arnott as Varya provide a solid and resourceful heart around which the rest of the action can proceed. This is fitting as they are the future: hard working, resourceful and completely impoverished when it comes to emotions. The most notable performances come from Claire Lamont as the estate’s serving maid, Dunyasha, and Susan Coyle, who doubles up as Ranyevsky’s young daughter Anya and the German governess, Charlotta.

To be fair, Lamont has the benefit that Dunyasha provides much of the focus of the whole production.

She is loved by both Alan Tall’s accident-prone Simon Yepikhodov and Tim Licata’s sneaky servant Yasha, although he’s more in love with himself.

Coyle also has plenty to play with, as she managed to create two completely different characters in the entertaining, corsetted governess and the young, romantically naive girl.

This might not be the best-ever staging of the Cherry Orchard, but it will provide plenty to think about for those who know the play - or think they do. It is a production that is open, accessible and filled with great warmth.

Showing at The Royal Lyceum tomorrow and Saturday