There is still a cherry orchard in this Chekhov adaptation – only it is now attached to a rickety starship that’s travelling through space. The fading but formidable Ranyevskaya has become Captain Ramesh (Anjali Jay), with the other character names also changed to reflect a brilliant cast of south Asian heritage. There’s talk of cartographers and cloning, meteorite crashes and system breakdowns, and one of the parlour maids has become a mammoth AI system, brought to life with some wonderfully playful work from sound designer Max Pappenheim, designer Rosie Elnile and actor Chandrika Chevli.
All this might sound a bit gimmicky but Vinay Patel’s version is thoughtful, funny and suffused with romance and yearning. In one of the most striking scenes, Anju (Samar Khan) feels sunlight on her face for the first time, as she tentatively talks of a new and different future with Talwar (Gavi Singh Chera). Lighting designer Jai Morjaria lets in a sliver of golden light and, for a moment, love paints the world anew.
Maanuv Thiara is a whirling meteorite of energy as chief engineer Lenka, trapped between two worlds. He’s the Cassandra of the ship – the only character able to understand what the restlessness of the crew down below means for the captain and her family living up above. The thwarted romance between Lenka and Ramesh’s daughter Varsha (Tripti Tripuraneni) is especially moving and suggests, for all the change that is coming, just how entrenched ideas of class and hierarchy have become.
Despite these striking moments, the show veers off course as the cherry orchard’s future comes under threat. James Macdonald directs with restraint, even dignity, but the sci-fi aspect begins to dull the play’s resonance. With such a remote setting, it’s difficult to connect with what Captain Ramesh and her family are leaving behind. Perhaps inevitably, it all feels a little self-contained and never any bigger than the sum of its parts. When Feroze (Hari Mackinnon) is abandoned on the ship, doomed to float off into the ether for eternity, what might have been painful feels slightly silly.
So close. So interesting. But perhaps one step too far into the great unknown?
At the Yard, London, until 22 October