ANY theatre production that has the magnificent Ian McKellen playing in it commands attention. Such is the case with Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, running at the Theatre Royal (Windsor) until the middle of November.
Although it’s a bit part that McKellen plays, he almost steals the show. He’s the curmudgeonly near deaf butler Firs who has long been part of the living breathing furniture of a country house that the magisterial Ranyevskaya returns to after years cavorting around Paris.
The bearded Firs mutters, he shuffles like the old man he is, and at the end of the play he lies down in the deserted house. Last man standing and last man to lie down. Discarded and left to fend for himself. All rather sad, but it’s McKellen’s night, for sure.
Yet, this is a production, imaginatively directed by Sean Mathias, that has a stellar – and vast – cast besides McKellen.
Ranyevskaya, spending money like confetti, is magnificently played by Francesca Annis. Although short of a bob or three, she returns in swathes of velvet and furs and is regal-like around the house. Equity rich, cash poor, but unwilling to do anything about her acute financial situation. Both charming and foolish, clinging on to the coat tails of former glories and riches.
Her nemesis, a gruff Lopakhin (Martin Shaw) with fat chunky chips on both of his shoulders, urges her to sell the house’s cherry orchard so that summer homes can be built on the land. But Ranyevskaya, initially at least, resists. Lopakhin is a former peasant who has made good, but can’t forget her family’s harsh treatment of his ancestors. He is nothing but persistent in his quest to get the orchard sold.
Jenny Seagrove plays Gaev, Ranyevskaya’s rather pompous and verbose brother who for some strange reason is obsessed with billiards. A brave role to play, but Seagrove carries it off – just.
There is also a marvellous performance from Robert Daws as neighbour Pishchik who is constantly in debt and asking for credit. Somehow, through a mix of charm and cheek, he gets by. An artful buffoon who likes a tipple or two if the opportunity arises.
There are some clever production touches. The depth of the theatre’s stage allows for an antechamber where characters happily chat and dance away in the background while the play continues. And with no sight on stage of the cherry orchard that Lopakhin is so keen to get Ranyevskaya to sell (but to whom, we may ask?), it allows some of the audience to watch from seats perched on stage and immerse themselves in a feudal Russia long gone. A bird’s eye view of proceedings. Oh, to be close to the masterful McKellen.
With a diverse cast, and a good infusion of youthful zest from the likes of Alis Wyn Davies (servant Dunyasha), Ben Allen (principled student Trofimov) and Lee Knight (an ambitious manservant who never loses an opportunity to sneer at Firs), it’s an enjoyable production that rarely loses momentum.
Yet the sum of all the good parts aren’t quite reflected in the whole. But , then, it does possess an ace in McKellen. His wondrous performance alone is worth the ticket price.