Theatre review: The Cherry Orchard / Chichester Festival Theatre

Chichester Festival Theatre

So much first-rate work has derived from this Sussex playhouse in recent years that it is disappointing to find it lapsing into a decent dullness. You could argue that Philip Franks' revival strips Chekhov's play of the familiar excess of soulfulness and atmospherics. The problem is that, despite a handful of good performances, it puts nothing substantial in their place.

The first stumbling-block is Leslie Travers' set. It is so starkly under-furnished that it gives you little sense that Ranyevskaya's home was ever lived in. And the orchard is symbolised by a meagre branch that, oddly, appears in a horizontal panel at the top of the set. Given that the play is about the break-up of the old order, through the irresponsibility of the landowners themselves, you need to feel the reality of their world - but here, nothing vital seems at stake.

It is left to the actors to supply the detail lacking in the design, and a number of them succeed. The best performance comes from Jemma Redgrave, whose Varya displays the control-freakery that stems from emotional disappointment. She conveys the true Chekhovian sense of wasted potential, and her breakdown, when Lopakhin once again ducks out of proposing marriage, is deeply affecting.

The play's momentous class shift is neatly registered in Oliver Kieran-Jones's performance as the bumptious footman, Yasha. And there are resonant studies in solitude from Frank Finlay as the valet and Maureen Lipman as the governess, concealing her loneliness under a mask of cultivated eccentricity.

But Diana Rigg brings little new to Ranyevskaya. She is at her best in her denunication of Simon Scardifield's Trofimov as, in Mike Poulton's translation, "a prig, an overgrown child, a eunuch". But you never sense that this is a woman blinded to economic reality by romantic ardour, or who is, in her brother's phrase, "a bit of a slut". Without wishing to appear ungallant, both she and William Gaunt as a silver-haired Gayev also seem somewhat mature for the roles they inhabit.

While Michael Siberry captures Lopakhin's vindictive triumph in buying the estate, he misses the tension between the character's peasant origins and his infatuation with Ranyevskaya. But this is typical of a wan production that stages the play without exploring its emotional contradictions or drawing you into its disintegrating world.

· Until June 7. Box office: 01243 781312.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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