DAVID NICHOLSON sees a great new version of a Russian classic, relocated to Wales in the Thatcher era
The Cherry Orchard Sherman Theatre, Cardiff 5/5
THIS reimagining by Gary Owen of Chekhov’s bitter-sweet meditation on a society on the cusp of change is likely to become a classic in its own right.
With the action switched from early 20th-century Russia to Pembrokeshire in 1982, Owen has stripped back the number of characters and created an ensemble piece rich in humour and pathos. Denise Black is a spirited Rainey, the absent landowner who has spent the last 10 years away from the family home drinking and taking a succession of lovers.
Rainey’s been brought back to the ancestral home by her daughters because the estate is losing money and faces sale at auction to pay back the bank.
Black, better known for her work on TV, is a revelation here as she trades one-liners with her two daughters and the housekeeper, as well as putting down any men who come into her orbit.
Her acerbic daughter Valerie, played with fervour by Hedydd Dylan, has been trying to run the estate but hasn’t been able to make money because of her feckless mother’s absence.
But it is Alexandria Riley’s housekeeper Dottie and Simon Armstrong as Uncle Gabriel who steal the show. She is wholly convincing as the local who just about does everything for the family she has served since she was a girl.
Hers is an acerbic response as her class, background and council-estate life are impugned snobbishly by her so-called betters.
They may love Dottie but she is not their equal and they make sure she knows it.
Armstrong’s bluff, blundering nincompoop uncle is beautifully nuanced — he loves his family but doesn’t know how to help extricate them from their financial mess.
Despite his lack of brains he manages to get a job in banking because the oiks making money need to exploit his social cachet.
Tellingly, the action revolves around Thatcher’s right-to-buy policy, when Britain’s social housing stock was flogged off on the cheap. Matthew Bulgo as Lewis, who’s also wooing Valerie, is the epitome of the upwardly mobile working-class lad on the make of the time.
He idolises the Tory leader and is determined to save the family’s property by exploiting the lust for home ownership.
Director Rachel O’Riordan, along with playwright Owen, deserve the plaudits for creating a fine piece of theatre.
This gem of a production is proving hugely popular and its run has been extended — definitely a must-see.