The Cherry Orchard review – uprooted Chekhov chimes with Thatcher's Britain

Sherman theatre, Cardiff
The red-hot team of playwright Gary Owen and director Rachel O’Riordan relocate the Russian classic to 1980s Wales

Playwright Gary Owen and director Rachel O’Riordan delivered one of the best new plays of the year so far in Killology and previously worked together on the award-winning Iphigenia in Splott. Both featured modern-day characters living on the brink in times of uncertainty and inequality.

For their latest collaboration at the in-form Sherman theatre, the pair have cast their beady eyes over Chekhov’s great final play, written in 1904 amid the rumbles of revolution, and here relocated to a Pembrokeshire country estate in 1982, a time of seething political and social change whose effects are still felt today. It is rather like watching a fascinating prequel to Owen and O’Riordan’s earlier works, filling in some of the gaps and asking the question: how did we get from there to now, from Thatcher to May?

The hard-drinking, grief-stricken Rainey (Denise Black), a woman who thought that living in the Dorchester would be cheaper than running a London flat, and who describes herself as “a bit of a handful”, has been unwillingly dragged back to Wales by her daughters, Valerie (Hedydd Dylan) and Anya (Morfydd Clark), because the bank is about to auction their house.

Denise Black, seated centre, weighs up a lucrative offer from Matthew Bulgo’s Lewis.
Cashing in … Denise Black, seated centre, weighs up a lucrative offer from Matthew Bulgo’s Lewis. Photograph: Photo by Mark Douet

In Kenny Miller’s sparely effective cruciform design, which often makes the family look like stranded survivors clinging on in their own sparsely furnished drawing room, it sometimes feels as if the bailiffs have already been.

As in Chekhov’s original, there is a solution to the family’s financial woes. Lewis (Matthew Bulgo), the grandson of a man evicted from the land on which the orchard was planted, now runs a construction company. He has plans to build new houses on the orchard site, cashing in on the social and economic changes brought about by Thatcher’s half-price sale of council housing. But will Rainey sign in time?

Owen, who describes his play as “a reimagining”, cherry picks what is useful to him from the original. There are many parallels and recognisable characters: Chekhov’s maid Dunyasha becomes the housekeeper Dottie (Alexandria Riley), the eternal student Trofimov is now the dole-signing, anarcho-syndicalist Ceri (Richard Mylan) who is thinking of using the enterprise allowance scheme to set up a record label, and brother Gaev becomes Gabriel (Simon Armstrong), a walking, talking dodo whose veneer of affability stretches thin over his self-entitlement.

The play is as sharp as an axe when it comes to interrogating class, money and social mobility. When Black’s brilliantly emotionally outsized Rainey observes that Lewis was once the boy eating scraps in the kitchen because his dad had drunk away the family wage by Sunday night, it only serves to highlight her own fecklessness. Lewis is the socially mobile future; Rainey is the past. But of course those of us watching know that the future doesn’t pan out as expected.

Watch The Pines, a Brexit short written by Gary Owen

The piece is brilliant in exploring grief and the way it paralyses. This is a house full of ghosts — in particular the ghost of Rainey’s dead son – and that is why it is hard for Rainey and Anya to cut with the past. But as in Iphigenia in Splott and Killology, the play also demonstrates that grief comes at a price and it is one that the poor can’t always afford. Rainey has spent a decade luxuriating in her grief, but Dottie, who has also suffered loss, has just had to get on with life.

Anyone wedded to samovars and birch trees may find themselves discombobulated, but just as Simon Stone’s Yerma reinvented Lorca, so Owen keeps the spirit if not every letter of Chekhov alive. This Cherry Orchard takes quite a while to blossom, but as the evening unfolds something interesting happens: instead of seeing the characters through the nostalgic haze of history, we see them in all their warty, painful complexity so that sometimes they are victims of changing times, and at others they are merely victims of their own stupidity, privilege or small-mindedness. I spent the entire evening lurching between sympathy and open-mouthed outrage at their behaviour. You really do come to both love and hate them: a testament to the writing, direction and a quality ensemble.

David Hare recently bemoaned a shift that has, in his eyes, reduced the primacy of the playwright in Britain and led to a theatre that is dominated by directors. But British theatre has always been at its best when at its most creatively co-operative. From Nicholas Hytner and Alan Bennett to Sarah Frankcom and Maxine Peake, there have been many fruitful, creatively inspiring partnerships. Owen and O’Riordan’s collaborations are further evidence of that – and, together, they ensure that the century-old Cherry Orchard flowers again.


Lyn Gardner

The GuardianTramp

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