Gary Owen’s play is called The Cherry Orchard, a re-imagining, and is best approached as a thoughtful communication of the author’s views in his 21st century world rather than the Chekhov play.
The idea is to have a historic transposition to 1982 and in some areas this works but in others it smacks more of much later in that decade and in more industrial urban areas of Britain than the countryside setting. Thus the need to consider the author and his context rather than a representation of the period. Post Second World War Britain’s economic and social revolution, when property owners really did face massive upheaval and change from the new Labour government, would also have suited this polemic. Maybe we did want a 1980s Wales we could have put the play in the Valleys post 1984 and called the play Mountain Ash. Either way it is best to put to one side the sublime treatment of relationships and hidden griefs and resentments at the heart of the original work. It has to be seen in its own right and it is best to save put Chekhov out of mind.
Better to take this as a new play set in this author’s own home county of Pembrokeshire, in the early Thatcher period and the house has become the impoverished Raine’s family home, called Bloumfield. The matriarch has drunk away any family money and, having sold the family flat in the big city (the last hope of raising money to save the pile) is spending what is left of her cash and life living in a London hotel (ironically just as Thatcher ended her years). This is a fictional world where Thatcher’s impact on Pembrokeshire is middle class property owners losing their family homes to self-made working class local Tories who snatch up land for housing and inhabited by feckless comical Welsh Socialists deriding the UK in the Falklands War.
The play is in parts a hoot, with plenty of larger than life character acting and when this settles down it eventually reaches some of the deep social, emotional, physical and class interaction that Chekhov gave as a gift to the world. Owen’s world is an amalgam of 1980s stereotypes so we have Ad Fab’s Edina and Saffy for Rainey and Valerie (a drunken, flighty, refusing to grow up, London socialite mother and her sensible dull daughter who hold everything together). Her other daughter Anya is also of this 1980s world, a university student, not too serious about the student politics, sexual politics and virtually everything else. The on the dole idealistic Lefty Ceri is a Citizen Smith character (another stereotype) spouting radical nonsense but (like that 1980s TV character) happy to swallow his politics for ready money and “romance”. We also have the ridiculous Uncle (so popular in the genre – think the seemingly ridiculous but old-fashioned, good sense characterization in a myriad of very UK drama roles) and the sensible “servant” (PA, secretary, housekeeper, ladies maid etc from Mozart to Downton Abbey) who has a cheeky tongue, common sense and holds it all together, here the old family retainer Dottie. We have local boy done good, not quite a Dell Boy, but here Lewis, who has that barrow boy commercial sense to exploit a good business if slightly shady opportunity.
You can pretty much work out the type and basis of much of the humour from the above characterisations, along with the plot (hard-up property owner, dysfunctional family, savvy opportunist). Yes, you will chuckle as that sort of obvious humour (which is why we see so much of it on the TV) and the characterization of the drunken, damaged, figure Rainey, is also always guaranteed a nervous, embarrassed laugh (from Bette Davis, Alexis in Dynasty, Karen Walker in Will and Grace and a plethora of drag queens). We all love the tragic super bitch with a good stock of one liners. So large is the character as wonderfully realised by Denise Black (I am sure you could have just handed her the script and say, 1, 2, 3, Go and you would have got this marvelous performance) that with the exception of the superb Dottie from Alexandria Riley (remember her in Torchwood?) the rest of the cast was unable to shine anywhere nearly as brightly. These two very different actresses make the roles their own, totally delightful in contrasting yet complimentary styles and role realisation, and while with Rainey you always know you are going to get the dramatic soliloquy sooner or later, with Dottie it is a far subtler, less obvious revelation and all the better for it.
Hedydd Dylan as the self-pitying and hard done by Valeria is convincing and secure and perhaps hints at self realisation that she has been taken for a ride by her quasi romantic pairing, the awkwardly drawn character Lewis from Matthew Bulgo, who oddly has to make a remarkable transformation from a rather limp local to the dark destroyer. Yes, he is grouchy at the way he is spoken to by his former betters and his angry, bitter performance hints at what is to come but the deep hurt, the generational resentment, the simmering desire for revenge, lies rather subtly below the surface. Anya (Morfydd Clark) and Ceri (Richard Mylan) are pretty straightforward as the pretty young thing head-screwed-on student and the silly local boy who never came to much good who has unconvincing Damascus-like transformation into determining to become a music radical. Think of those working class hero South East Wales bands in the latter 1980s and 1990s. The two actors are charming in their conflicting ways. Simon Armstrong is suitably disarming and seemingly innocent and naive in the role as that lovable, slightly absent-minded, cuddly, nice old Uncle Gabriel.
There isn’t a great deal to say about the design from Kenny Miller, a practical set enabling a bit of action off to one side or down at the front, otherwise a wall-less room with some furniture. This is a rather static production from Rachel O’Riordan, which suited that simple set with characters not really needing to do a lot more than stand and deliver their lines and walk around the table and sofa that dominate the stage (sitting, lying, perching, slouching etc on the latter). The kids listening to records down in the orchard was cute in that sweet and slightly gauche way. This is something of a play for voices rather than physical drama and frequently there wasn’t a lot more for them to do than be allowed to say their lines. As with other Gary Owen work, that was particularly true when the style switches from relatively normal speech exchange to flowery, lyrical for monologues such as Rainey’s recounting of the day her son died.
The second part of this very long evening was far more enjoyable, convincing and made the commitment of time worthwhile, as we conventionally swept into the serious stuff for post-interval. The discarding with much of the over the top boom-boom routines and concentration on the human interactions, discarding of masks, acceptance of the past and contemporary reality, made for some fine theatre and intense performances. If it were not such a long evening (and some of the language a little colourful) I would recommend this as a show to take young people to introduce them to theatre as it is very easy to follow, with straightforward character drawing, recognisable types and no gimmicks or psychobabble and, apart from those few flowery poetic passages, written in a generally everyday style.
It is also pertinent that the play is set in Little England Beyond Wales and reminds us that this is very much an English-language theatre that continues to struggle to have a Welsh voice.
Until November 3
Main image: Alexandria Riley and Denise Blake
Images: Mark Douet
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