The most challenging obstacle to a successful staging of Chekhov's last play is its theme of inertia in a time of change. If a director is not careful, the torpor that infects these ineffectual Russian aristocrats can transmit itself to the audience as well.
Bruce Jamieson's production has the merit of rattling through the play's four acts in two hours, and that includes a pause for an interval snifter. In some respects this acceleration energises the drama, but it does so at the expense of incidental action (there are cuts) and that essential Chekhovian mood of idle languor.
Landowner Ranyevskaia returns with her family from a sojourn (and a lover) in France to reclaim her estate. She shrugs off warnings from peasant-made-good Lopakhin that her financial situation is parlous and she must sell off land in order to meet her mortgage. After all, what does this jumped-up serf know? All too much, she learns too late, as the axe starts to fall on her beloved cherry orchard.
Designer Sara Gianfrate's blend of scrim, paint and petals artfully suggests both indoor and outdoor environments. A chaise longue and a conservatory-style table and chair complete the melded setting and allow it to accommodate all of Chekhov's various locations with nuanced restraint.
If only all the onstage performances were blest with such subtlety. A few of them, alas, are no better than bland. The players are not always helped by Jamieson's direction which, though well paced, lacks fluidity and depth, with the result that one or two actors appear to fall out of character during static ensemble scenes.
The best work, though, is both effective and affecting. Maggie Daniels brings extraordinary shading to the pivotal role of Ranyevskaia: she deteriorates before our eyes and complacency gives way to baffled dismay as she cries "I cannot conceive of life without the cherry orchard". Sweet young Ania, as played by Clare McMahon, is a sensitive soul touched with optimism, her lightness thrown into stark relief by the quietly tragic Varia of Suzanne Goldberg.
Nik Drake brings an idealist's passion to the student, Trofimov, Hugh Hemmings is both dignified and ridiculous as Feers, the ancient valet, and Richard Unwin bumbles endearingly as the cash-strapped Pishchik.
The performance that will linger longest in the memory, though, is the practical, matter-of-fact Lopakhin of Robert Paul. His interpretation of the family's friendly nemesis is gentle yet steely, compassionate yet clear-eyed, and anything but the boor perceived by Ranyevskaia's indolent brother. Like the lumberjack in the orchard, he's OK.