Originally published on Exeunt
Inspired by Anton Chekhov, Bonnie Greer updates The Cherry Orchard with an emphasis on contrasting those stuck in the past with those looking toward the future. Whether it’s Karim Hassan (Abhin Galeya) and Cornell Baxter (Andrew Dennis), seeking to revitalise the estate that welcomed the likes of Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald, or Mountjoy heiress Anita (Ellen Thomas) and old, faithful butler Fielding (Michael Bertenshaw) remembering the heyday with misguided nostalgia, Greer’s script is a divided affair.
The first two acts seem like a caricature, striving to match Chekhov’s power of introspection and reflection in which the action doesn’t move in a conventional fashion but instead allows the mood to wash over the audience and take hold. The opening sequence, in which the Mountjoys return home with childlike glee and hark back to times gone by, is stunted and jarring – Femi Eliufowoju Jr’s direction doesn’t allow the production to flow and resorts to freeze-frame narration to set the scene. Josiah Tripp (El Anthony) introduces the play, pandering to the audience with a condescending prologue that serves only to undermine the remaining story. Yet Thomas rallies on, totally committed to her character as a pleasant, if somewhat deluded, woman incapable of facing up to the seriousness of the situation. Her stoicism veils her ability to see common sense; she blindly fiddles whilst Rome reduces to ashes.
As pithy as the opening is, the second act comes into its own and brings more layered analysis on the plight of the once proud Mountjoy family. As the attempts by brother A.L (Nicholas Beveney) and daughter Chirlane (Madeline Appiah) to claw back enough money to save their cherished family estate are found wanting, Anita’s mindless optimism takes on a sharper focus. Now her determination to remain positive becomes a desperate smoke-screen, a thin line standing between sanity and her descent into madness.
Once her worst fears are realised, Anita breaks down – a Norma Desmond-style faded starlet who becomes unbalanced once her greatest security (her home) is taken from her. And yet, inspired by her heroes of jazz and song, she smiles even though her heart is breaking. Daughters Chirlane and Lorraine (Claire Prempeh) wail and moan, but not Anita. She crumbles from within and skilfully maintains a brave face for her children, finally stepping up and becoming the matriarch long forgotten in the household.
As The Hotel Cerise enters a new era, the characters reflect before, one by one, they exit upstage – some full of hope for a new dawn, others resigned to a fate decided. Elufowoju allows the atmosphere to expand at long last, and gives the audience breathing room to soak in the magnitude of the transition.
DIRECTED BY Femi Elufowoju Jr
WRITTEN BY Bonnie Greer after Anton Chekhov
CAST INCLUDES El Anthony; Madeline Appiah; Michael Bertenshaw; Nicholas Beveney; Andrew Dennis; Abhin Galeya; Lacharne Jolly; Corey Montague-Sholay; Claire Prempeh; Alexis Rodney; Ellen Thomas; Angela Wynter
The Hotel Cerise is on at the Theatre Royal Stratford East until 12th November 2016. Click here for more details.