Review: The Cherry Orchard at the Royal Exchange Theatre

Guest review by Richard Hall

Few plays have arguably resonated at the Royal Exchange Theatre more profoundly than those by the Russian writer, Anton Chekhov. His plays benefit enormously from being performed in the round and this superb production is no exception.

This version of The Cherry Orchard, co-produced with the Bristol Old Vic, comes to the Exchange garlanded with four and five star reviews. Directed by Michael Boyd, former Artistic Director of The Royal Shakespeare Company, this is a production that shows off Chekhov’s naturalistic masterpiece to great effect. The setting for the production appears to have been updated to a period that is placed somewhere between the mid 1930s and the lead up to the Second World War. It features a multinational cast that clearly delight in Boyd’s assured, fresh and modern interpretation.

Photo credit: Liam Bennett

Facing financial ruin, Luba Ranyevskaya, a beautiful and spirited widow, returns home after a self-imposed exile brought on by the deaths of her husband and young son. At her family estate she is welcomed back by Lopakhin, a wealthy local businessman who offers to buy it and her beloved cherry orchard.

This being Chekhov, social, personal and political concerns collide and although Lopakhin, the son of a former family servant, believes that the old aristocratic order must change, his unrequited love for Ranyesvskaya and gratitude for her family’s past kindnesses makes it hard for him to contemplate splitting up the estate. Whilst Ranyevskaya agonises over the sale, disaffected servants, for which Boyd has interestingly chosen to cast BAME actors, look forward to the demise of the gentry, anticipating changes that in time will have unparalleled consequences not only for Russia but all of the Western World.

Boyd’s production is stripped bare of any artifice. For the whole performance the auditorium lights are dimmed, making the audience clearly visible, and only essential period props and furniture are used. The wooden panelled floor makes the actors appear as if they are performing on a concert stage and there is indeed something operatic about this production. As Ranyevskaya, Kirsty Bushell is captivating and hauntingly moving; it is impossible not to share in her grief and pain. She is oblivious to all the change around her and only wakens out of her dreamlike state when she briefly sees the spirit of her dead child come alive in front of her eyes.

Photo credit: Liam Bennett

The relationship between Ranyevskaya and Lopakhin is at the very heart of the play; it drives the narrative, creates tension and as Boyd points out in a fascinating programme interview, serves to underline the gulf that exists between their respective classes. Jude Owusu as Lopakhin is excellent; his performance is nuanced and highly detailed. The scenes between him and Bushell are compelling and gripping.

Rory Mullarkey’s new and very modern translation helps to make Chekhov’s sub text clearer. Even though a century separates Mullarkey and the premiere of The Cherry Orchard, one senses that he keenly shares Chekhov’s view of the world and some of his sentiment. With this production, the Royal Exchange once again takes an important classic and makes it wonderfully accessible and relevant to the modern age. It is highly recommended.

The Cherry Orchard is at The Royal Exchange Theatre until 19th May.

Review: Moments That Changed Our World at the Royal Exchange Theatre

Guest review by Aleks Anders

The Royal Exchange Elders, a group of keen theatre-going amateurs over the age of 60 who attend weekly sessions at The Royal Exchange, have put together this quite extraordinary and quirky piece of theatre which celebrates age. With some pathos each of the 11 strong cast – including a couple of recorded stories from other members – tells us the moments in their lives which shaped them, changed them and made them the person they are today.

The stories intertwine, and the chronology is lost after the first sentence, but somehow this doesn’t matter. There is humour, bonhomie, and a sense of fellowship amongst the cast that one seldom sees, or at least is aware of, amongst professional actors.

Though entitled rather grandiosely as Moments That Changed Our World, the large global political or geographical events which can and do shape many peoples’ lives are in short supply in this one hour long celebration of the third age of mankind. Instead it focuses on the smaller and more personal instances which affect the individuals in their own special ways. Becoming an actress and receiving her first applause; being homosexual at a time when it was illegal and offensive; turning 60; the joys and dangers of computer technology; a divorce.

The stage is set with audience on two opposing sides whilst the other sides of the rectangle are used as a screen to project film, photos and other footage to exemplify and augment the narrative. The space is intimate, and when not acting, the cast sit on the front row; but the staging is far from optimal. End on would have worked much better.

There are darker and more serious moments aplenty too. A young black lady coming over to work for the NHS, and finding our island cold, unwelcoming, insular and above all, intolerant and racist (so, nothing has changed then??!!); another lady in her youth fighting for Women’s Lib and equality (and still nothing has changed!); whilst an ardent CND campaigner tells of his moments in rallies, and asks if in reality, his campaigning has actually amounted to anything changing on a global scale.

With group hugs and plenty of friendly encouragement, these tales are spoken about with a hint of nostalgia, but with a huge zeal and zest for life. And hooray to that!

As the final lines of the play ring out… “Time is not on our side, so let’s live for today; and tomorrow I will… tomorrow I will wake with a smile and be grateful. I WILL!”

Directed by The Elders’ Company leader Andrew Barry, and created by him and the company through workshops and devising, the 11 members telling their moments on stage are Sheila Colman, Christine Connor, Gordon Emerson, Graham Gillis, Brenda Hickey, Christopher Littler, Jacquie Lang, Estelle Longmore, Don McGregor, Glyn Treharne, and Kenneth Walker. Well done to all of you, it’s a wonderful idea, bravely and sensitively told, and since “it’s easy to stop playing as you get older” – please, don’t stop!

Moments That Changed Our World is at the Royal Exchange Theatre until 25th February.

Review: Persuasion at the Royal Exchange Theatre

Guest review by Aleks Anders

Persuasion is Jane Austen’s last complete novel, and is set most definitely in the counties of Avon and Somerset in the early part of the 19th century. It is a tragi-romance, and although there is some humour to be found in the novel, it is essentially written in earnestness. In the main, the story concerns the 27-year-old daughter of an impoverished noble wanting, nay needing, to marry; and the travails this entails as she watches in horror and amusement her relatives’ follies and dalliances. Her life changes forever though, when she encounters the man she had been engaged to more than seven years ago, and has not seen in as many years.

“Other people will try to persuade you. You must listen to your heart.”

A classic British novel which tells of a time passed; when morals, ideologies, customs, behaviours and habits were all so very different from the present. Perhaps the appeal here is that this evokes a kind of nostalgia, or a wish for change; or perhaps we just like to look at and laugh at the folly of our ancestors knowing that our lives are infinitely changed. Whatever the case, we expect to see a production that mirrors and compliments the author’s intent… and thereby lies the rub.

Photo credit: Johan Persson

On walking into Manchester’s celebrated in-the-round theatre we are greeted with a huge, looming cream-coloured rectangle, taking up most of the stage area. Around this are positioned multifarious sound and lighting paraphernalia, and the whole is lit with a cold blueish wash. A body is lying face down on top of this oblong. It’s female, she has dreadlocks, in modern dress, and seems dead. The cast are seated on the front row of the audience, in costume, and even change their costumes in full view of us all. It’s all a little strange.

First, it was obvious where the budget for this show went. On this rectangle. The omnipresent block is on two levels and the top half is a turntable which moves round at various points in the play. There is no set, no props, and nothing else is ever brought on for a scene. The scenes change fast and furiously, completely seamlessly, and we are expected to keep up with this without being given any visual stimulae to aid us. There is even a point where one character finishes speaking in one scene, stays exactly where she is and continues speaking for the start of the second scene as a different character, without so much as voice or body language change. The costumes are modern, but really rather strange. None of the costumes really seem to signify the character in any way, and are obviously not meant to be completely realistic.

“The problem is it is impossible to know what will happen in the future.”

The only thing to change this monotony is towards the end of the first act, when the action moves to the seaside town of Lyme Regis. The cast strip off revealing sexy swimsuits underneath, and a seemingly never-ending flow of foam cascades from above onto this rectangular block. The cast slip and slide in it and across it much to the laughter and approbation of the audience. This is followed immediately by Louisa, who slips once too often and has ketchup poured over her by Anne, again to much laughter since this is funny. It is only afterwards that we learn that it was in fact tragic, and she fell over the edge of a cliff!

Photo credit: Johan Persson

The language of the play is also at odds with this highly modern vision from director Jeff James. It’s very similar to watching a Shakespeare play in modern costumes whereby the language and business (such as sending letters etc) simply do not befit the updating. And yet – out of nowhere – Anne suddenly half-way through the second act screams the line, “Shut the f&$! up!” It jars and is out of place with the rest of the dialogue. However, if all the dialogue had been modernised in this way, I may well have enjoyed the play more.

Basically, I think what I am trying to say is that I do not believe that this adaptation is true to the author, nor is it at all clear. A mixed production at best. It is at one and the same time ultra-contemporary in concept and execution, and yet firmly fixed in the early 1800s with the language and references.

Fortunately the saving grace of this play is that the acting is really very good. All the cast invested a huge amount into their roles and this paid its dividends. Lara Rossi is a rather moody and sullen Anne, whilst her more frivolous female peers are played excellently by Cassie Layton (Elizabeth and Louise) and Caroline Moroney (Mrs. Clay/Henrietta). In fact, there has been – and still is – much bemoaning that there are so few plays with strong female leads. This play is quite the opposite; there are many strong female characters here.

The male roles do seem less defined than the female ones, but Samuel Edward-Cook’s Captain Wentworth is true and grounded throughout and very believable.

“Love can save your life. But love is the problem.”

Persuasion is at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester until 24th June.