“The sheer magic of this production is the beguiling mix of melancholy and madness; of manners and mannerisms”
The original intention of Chekhov was for “The Cherry Orchard” to be a comedy; yet when it was first staged in 1904 at the Moscow Art Theatre, the writer/director Constantin Stanislavski turned it into a tragedy. If not distressed, Chekhov was very irritated by the misrepresentation of his work. Enough to put him in a mild state of depression. Ever since, there has been much discussion on the multi-layered nature of the play’s message.
Sean Mathias’ production at Theatre Royal, Windsor knows which side of the fence it lies and undoubtedly remains true to Chekhov’s intentions. With the help of a stellar cast the humour of the piece shines through and is maintained throughout the overly long two and a half hours running time. This is no mean feat, given that the characters themselves are generally not the comic type. Yet the wonderful ensemble cast bring out the flaws and the foolishness; the childishness in a seemingly mature group of people. It’s a kind of coming-of-age story for those who have already long come of age.
Fresh from the demands of his trail-blazing and age-defying Hamlet, Sir Ian McKellen is taking a step back, trying to blend into the background as the elderly servant Firs. There is a danger of his cameo becoming the lead but his generosity and sheer attention to the detail of how his character fits into the narrative lead to what is both a show-stealing performance, yet allowing his fellow actors to plunder as much as they can. Robert Daws is an absolute delight as the cash strapped moocher, overflowing with optimism and drunken charm and bouncing off Martin Shaw’s more successful but less confident Lopakhin. Shaw skilfully managed to mix a self-conscious awareness of Lopakhin’s peasant background with a cocksure sense of his own right to cut the privileged down to size (and ultimately cut down their beloved cherry orchard).
Francesca Annis, as Ranyevskaya the owner of the estate, swoops onto the stage majestically. No stranger to personal tragedy, she still seems clothed in waves of happiness. Yet Annis has the skill to show us the many tears and gashes that are covered up. The childlike way she greets her furniture as affectionately as her family is simultaneously ridiculous and tender. Her mix of tragedy and comedy is most (there’s only one way to put it) Chekhovian. But the minor characters also manage to have a major effect. Missy Malek and Kezrena James as the two sisters; and Alis Wyn Davies as the maid, Dunyasha, are names to look out for. Alison Halstead gives a fireball of a performance as the circus performer, trickster come governess, Charlotte. The only one who doesn’t quite seem to grasp the sense of fun that can be had with these characters is Jenny Seagrove, who plays the brother Gaev with a touch too much seriousness and lack of colour.
This is a piece that focuses on the characters and their interactions more than the story. After all, not an awful lot happens. In Act One, the cherry orchard is in danger of being sold, in Act Two it is on the verge of being sold, in Act Three it is sold, and in Act Four it has been sold. The sheer magic of this production is the beguiling mix of melancholy and madness; of manners and mannerisms and rambling lives that are just about keeping afloat. Much to relate to. There is tragedy everywhere, but we don’t always want to focus on that. This show, led by the inimitable McKellen et al, encompasses Chekhov’s spirit and lets us laugh at the seriousness of it all. Even if only for a couple of hours, but it is worth every minute.
“The writing is timeless and the acting faultless”
When “My Night With Reg” premiered at the Royal Court in 1994, Kevin Elyot’s depiction of the ups and downs of a circle of gay friends was seen to be ground-breaking and dissenting. A smash hit, it was considered to be the first gay play in which being gay wasn’t an issue. To revive it today there is the risk of it passing by unnoticed. The novelty value is obviously going to be diluted, if not dissolved completely, awash in a scene where much of London’s theatreland is championing the gay community. Yet it is the beauty of Elyot’s writing: his wit, compassion and insight, that make the task much easier. The writing will stand up at any point in history. Like his first play, “Coming Clean”, which tackles similar issues but when AIDS was still just a rumour in Britain, it doesn’t wave any flags or thrust articles of faith into our hands. It is a play about friendships and about how to keep those friendships alive; about lying and cheating and the subsequent costs of deception. It is about how we hold onto each other amid the barrage of adversity that is thrown at us.
And that is what comes across in Matt Ryan’s revival at the Turbine Theatre. It doesn’t try to replicate the storm that swept it onto the stage nearly three decades ago. Instead, it relies on a company of exceptional actors knocking back wonderful moments of nostalgia with their whisky chasers. Each cast member savours the language, embellishing it with their body language, mannerisms and silences that flesh out their characters.
Guy (Paul Keating) is nervously welcoming his university pal John (Edward M Corrie) into his flat warming party. The awkwardness stems from the unspoken and unrequited love that Guy feels for John. From the off we relish the realism that Keating brings to the shy Guy, fawning and fumbling in the face of Corrie’s cool composure. There’s a crackle in the air that is soon blown away when Gerard McCarthy’s Daniel storms in, buzzing with irreverence. The dialogue is swift and seemingly inconsequential, yet it skilfully establishes the relationships and connections between the ensemble. In the background is Eric (James Bradwell), Guy’s young decorator; initially an outsider but who very quickly wrangles a place centre stage. Alan Turkington and Stephen K Amos join the party as the bickering odd couple Bernie and Benny.
Never seen, but always present is the eponymous Reg. Reg is the one who binds them and can potentially drive them apart. It is no spoiler to reveal that each character onstage has had their ‘night with Reg’ at some point or other. It is the aftermath, the secrets and duplicity, the heartache, sorrow and dangers they each face after Reg has died that are the revelations in this skilfully constructed production. Lee Newby’s design, with its scattering of vinyl records and house plants, wonderfully mirrors the play’s mix of nostalgia and concurrence; concord and discord. The big picture is in the detail. And likewise, the big moments are found in the small gestures.
It seems irrelevant to harp on about the relevance of “My Night With Reg”. The writing is timeless and the acting faultless. The themes are shadowed by death, loss, grief, fear and sorrow but the strength of the personalities, not just of the characters but of the actors themselves, light up the darkest corners of the space, revealing the untidy dust balls of hope and optimism and the need to hang on to the delicacy of friendship that we can all relate to. AIDS is another central character, but the fact that it is never mentioned in the script, without diminishing its pertinence, enhances the play’s longevity and universality. And this heartfelt homage to Elyot will ensure the continued success and interest in his work.