Review: The Cherry Orchard, Theatre Royal Windsor ★★★★☆

In his introductory notes, Bill Kenwright observes that debate over whether Anton Chekhov's masterpiece, The Cherry Orchard, is a comedy or a tragedy is a familiar feeling to the past 18 months, 'not knowing whether to laugh or cry as the world turned upside down and decimated our beloved industry'. It's hard to disagree.

Following Ian McKellen's age-defying turn as Hamlet, much of the same company return to the Theatre Royal Windsor for this production, again directed by Sean Mathias. This is a much more conventional evening of theatre and, stripped of some of the eccentric flourishes that hampered Hamlet (the Dane delivering soliloquies from an exercise bike comes to mind) - and it is a better production for it.

The clever staging by Lee Newby sees the bare stage and exposed exterior brick walls adorned with just enough props to set each scene. A doorway, a bookcase, a few seats, and a couch are enough to evoke the sense of place - the nursery of Lyubov Andreyevna Ranevskaya's (Francesca Annis) estate, looking out over the eponymous Cherry Orchard. Ranevskaya has returned to Russia from Paris, arriving as the estate is to be sold to pay her debts. Annis' high quivering voice capturing the frailty of Ranevskaya's mental state as she tiptoes between reality and delusion, torn by her love of a man she knows is defrauding her.

Francesca Annis and Ian McKellen. Photo: Jack Merriman
She is unwilling to listen to the entrepreneur Lopakhin (Martin Shaw) and his plans to rescue Ranevskaya from her debts at the expense of the orchard. Following Lopakhin's return from the auction at which the estate was to be sold, Shaw delivers a powerful performance of a man who has realised the ancestral significance of his actions.

The production is built with a foundation of strong performances, as all good repertory should be; both from Annis and Shaw, and throughout the company. Robert Daws is extremely entertaining as the slightly farcical, hard up Pishchik, while Ben Allen is pitch perfect as Trofimov, the pretentious eternal scholar. Meanwhile, the rise and fall of the relationship between Yasha and Dunyasha is well played by Lee Knight and Alis Wyn Davies.

The cast. Photo: Jack Merriman
There are the odd misses. While the attraction in the relationship between Lopakhin and Varya (Kezrena James) is clear to the characters in the play, it is not clear to the audience that there is a spark - bar one fleeting moment during their final scene together.

But it is McKellen's supporting role as the long suffering servant Firs which, perhaps unsurprisingly, steals the show. With his shaved head, long white beard and Lancashire accent, McKellen demonstrates his comedy nous - expertly playing the role so that it is both farcical and entirely believable. With shaking hands and an unsteady walk, he mumbles and bumbles and steals the show.

The Cherry Orchard is at the Theatre Royal Windsor until 13 November.
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