Ian McKellen steps back from the limelight of Hamlet into the role of the rickety ancient retainer Firs in Anton Chekhov’s evergreen play about a once well-to-do Russian family forced to sell their precious cherry orchard to pay off their mounting debts, literally cutting ties with their own history.
Chekhov paints a portrait of changing society when Martin Shaw’s self-made man Lopakhin ‑ the son of a serf ‑ offers to buy the orchard to build summer houses, thereby making money from rents.
Following Chekhov’s insistence that the play is “a comedy, in places even a farce,” director Sean Mathias encourages more laughs than usual, though not at the expense of the underlying pathos and the climactic coup de grace.
Francesca Annis is superb as the matriarch Ranyevskaya; resplendent in burgundy velvet she wafts around her dilapidated house like a deluded diva in her own opera.
Lively performances from Missy Malek and Ben Allen as young lovers Anya and Trofimov and Robert Daws as the jovially impoverished Pishchik bolster a relatively straightforward production (with a rather peculiar set ‑ is that an air conditioner I see before me?).
The anomalous casting of Jenny Seagrove as Ranyevskaya’s billiard-obsessed brother, Gaev, sends out smoky, androgynous signals that are strangely intriguing.
The Cherry Orchard is at Theatre Royal Windsor until November 13. Tickets: 01753 853 888