Director Giles Croft admits choosing the piece to end his 18 year tenure at Nottingham Playhouse was difficult, but he settled on Anton Chekhov‘s final play which he feels aptly explores leaving and change. The version he went for was the recent adaptation by Simon Stephens and what you get is a tantalising fusion of two great playwrights from two different eras working as one to create a stunning and relevant version. 'It’s not the fittest animals but the cruellest who survive' says Peter Trofimov, wired and intense, played by Jamie de Courcey. It's hard to get more current than that.
On the surface, the play is about the threat of modernisation to our homes, possessions and our memories. There's much complexity within each character, but the main thrust of the piece focuses on Lyubov Ranevskaya, played by Sara Stewart, returning after years away to her estate and her beloved cherry orchard. After a botched Parisian dalliance she finds herself freefalling into financial ruin, only to be told by pragmatic merchant Lopakhin (John Elkington) that her only option is to sell the estate off for flats.
We then are privy to how Ranevskaya and those around her deal with the situation, or don't deal with it. Bumbling characters surround her, such as brother Gayev ('Details tomorrow, now to bed!') and deluded Pischik, who both talk about bookcases, money and billiards and never do anything. Stewart demonstrates that Ranevskaya knows there's trouble lurking, but memories and the past are too strong a presence and with heaven-headed hand gestures, she seems to be willing something or someone to help her.
There is not a bum note in this script. Everything said and every subtle glance reflects irony and subtext. In a play where all love is unrequited or unrealised – which we perhaps witness most in daughters Varya and Anya, played by Babirye Bukilwa and Evlyne Oyedokun, who survey the entire emotional spectrum in their performances – the comedy is absolutely there. Although no audience member will be falling over in the aisles.
The adaptation feels as if it gives the whole piece space to breathe. Tim Meacock's set has an early 20th century crumbling mansion stripped away as the acts unfold, leaving the actors with little left, sitting poised in wings that aren't there, visible to the audience. On and off stage is suddenly one big space.
Adam P McCready’s lilting pre-show and interval soundscape adds to the lacklustre yet burning, bitter melting pot. The Chekhov guitar appears with a duet of "I wonder who’s kissing her now" rendered by the detestable Yasha and jilted Simeon in the presence of Dunyasha; here a whole ridiculous Chekhovian love triangle was explored tenderly.
What a night, and as fits the play, what a way for Croft to say goodbye to Nottingham.
The Cherry Orchard runs at Nottingham Playhouse until 18 November.