The Cherry Orchard - review

Birmingham Rep

Chekhov insisted that his final play was a comedy; its original director, Konstantin Stanislavski, begged to differ. Though far too mercurial to be labelled tragedy or comedy, Tom Stoppard's English version – first produced by the Bridge Project at the Old Vic last year – suggests that it is all a question of perspective.

At first, the perspectives of Rachel Kavanaugh's production appear to be purposefully awry. "The only remarkable thing about your cherry orchard is that it is big," declares the profit-scenting property developer Lopakhin, and everything about Colin Richmond's design seems improbably vast. The homecoming party troops across the steppe-like expanses of the nursery floor like Lilliputian figures hardly any bigger than abandoned toys. The doll's house in the corner looks as if it could comfortably accommodate the summer tenants Lopakhin is so eager to attract.

Stoppard's quip-filled, pun-fuelled delivery provides a brighter tone than usual: the final apparition of Firs, the ancient retainer locked in the abandoned house, was greeted by some quarters of the audience as a hilarious oversight. Yet Stoppard's most provocative stroke is to question whether the Cherry Orchard must necessarily end on a dying fall. Certainly, from Lopakhin's point of view, having sewn up the deal to transform fruit trees into holiday homes, it all ends happily.

John Ramm's gimlet-eyed Lopakhin is a fascinating study in arriviste realpolitik. There's a tradition of playing the former serf as a misty-eyed romantic, half in love with what he seeks to destroy. But Ramm presents a bustling figure, impatient to embrace the future while all around seem determined to ignore it. The climactic scene in which he fails to propose to Emma Pallant's Varya is not a wistful meditation of emotional unfulfilment – he simply seems too busy to pop the question.

Josie Lawrence's Madame Ranevskaya is a giddy, girlish creature who can't sit still, the product of a collapsing social hierarchy that keeps her and her fecklessly snooty brother Gaev (Patrick Drury) cocooned in infantile irresponsibility. Anthony Flanagan's aloof student Trofimov presents an effete fount of intellectual snobbery, and there is a startling wakeup call from Ryan Winston's aggressive vagrant, who seems to represent an entire underclass snapping at their heels. It ends with the biting clamour of blades hacking into cherry wood, with which Chekhov may have conjured an appropriate symbol of our times – a mountain of debt reduced by a welter of damaging cuts.

Until 6 November. Box office: 0121-236 4455.


Alfred Hickling

The GuardianTramp

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