In his new play, Gary Owen “reimagines” Anton Chekhov’s 1904 play set in rural Russia in the lead-up to the failed 1905 revolution. He relocates the action to Pembrokeshire in 1982, on the eve of the Falklands war.
Although Chekhov’s title remains unchanged, the trees in Owen’s orchard don’t bear cherries but apples: a symbolic charge is lost, for which Owen never quite manages to compensate. On a more practical level, Owen’s reduction of Chekhov’s named characters by about half narrows the social scope of the original and restricts the number and type of possible interactions. Intricacy and complexity are translated into a soap opera-style directness.
At the same time, it feels as if Owen is hobbled by the original - held back from developing his own magical realist take on the situation (suggested by occasional eerie appearances of a toy train and by the ending that I shan’t give away).
If the play hasn’t quite found its true form, Rachel O’Riordan’s clear and taut production highlights its strengths. Her ensemble cast do justice to lively scenes, dynamic dialogue and humour. Denise Black, in particular, brings searing intensity to the role of Rainey, the hard-drinking, spendthrift, sexually aggressive, secretly grieving, land-owning matriarch forced back from London to face the family’s financial crisis.
Matthew Bulgo’s Lewis shows the growth from hesitancy to triumph of the local lad turned businessman who, in Thatcher’s Britain, recognises the future in housing development. Simon Armstrong, as Rainey’s unrealistically optimistic brother, Gabriel, is the embodiment of a man who never questions his entitlement, while Alexandria Riley as Dottie, the family’s long-serving housekeeper, finely balances a sense of loyalty with clear-eyed scepticism about the limits of sentiment in an employer-employee relationship. Hedydd Dylan and Morfydd Clark are convincingly contrasting sisters, and Richard Mylan avoids cliche as the dole-claiming, socialist conscience-pricker.