The Cherry Orchard, Festival Theatre, Chichester

2.00

An orchard that bears little fruit

Jonathan Church is doing a grand job as artistic director at Chichester. He manages to satisfy and to extend the tastes of the audience by bringing in unfamiliar, challenging work on the back of more traditional Chichester "packages", such as swankily cast safe classics. And his record with musicals (vibrant, high-definition revivals of neglected shows) is second to none.

So it's a depressing duty to report that Philip Franks' main-stage production of The Cherry Orchard is a major disappointment. It is stuffed with big names but it is an emotionally empty experience. It ushers you into the presence of Dame Diana Rigg (and by that fact alone will pack the place out), but whether it puts you in touch with the genius of Chekhov is a more debatable question.

Rigg's Mme Ranyevskaya is, in fact, one of this production's serious defects. As an actress, she excels at portraying formidability characters with a powerful firmness of purpose, such as Mother Courage, Medea, or the redoubtable Southern matriarch in Suddenly, Last Summer. She's great, too, at the scathing wit of ball-breakers such as Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. This, though, is her first stab at Chekhov, and I'm afraid her performance suggests that mercurial distraction is not her forte, and that she should have tackled the role, if at all, around 15 years ago.

Her Ranyevskaya is far too uncomplicatedly sweet and gracious, pouring forth generosity of attention as profligately as she spills out roubles on rash tips. When she listens to others, her eyes are wide with wonder and eager concentration. But Chekhov's heroine is maddening as well as captivating liable to stray at any moment into absent-minded self-involvement, or to shift, in the instant, from grief-stricken emotion to blithely oblivious cruelty. Rigg comes across more as a straightforward victim of historical change than as a woman who, in her feckless refusal to focus on economic realities, colludes in the loss of her family seat.

And, where this production of the play sentimentalises Ranyevskaya, it patronises Lopakhin, the rising business man who buys the estate on which his forefathers had been serfs. Chekhov was insistent that, despite his peasant origins, this character should be a gentle, dignified, intelligent figure the kind of man whom Varya could plausibly love. Michael Sibbery, however, lumbers him with a regulation rough accent and a hyperactively boorish manner.

True, you get a strong impression of the drive that has carried him up the ladder, and of his furious exasperation at the owners' snooty rejection of his kindly advice. But there's a sensitivity in Lopakhin that has here gone missing. You should feel that his display of drunken triumphalism when he comes back from the auction is partly the result of his underlying delicacy and consequent embarrassment. You need to see that he aches with longing for Ranyevskaya, who was kind to him as a boy, and that her efforts to pair him off with Varya only serve to make this worse. These tensions are dismayingly underexplored.

There are a handful of creditable performances. As Charlotta, the governess, Maureen Lipman projects just the right degree of studied eccentricity and matter-of-fact loneliness; and William Gaunt exactly pinpoints the sly evasiveness and sentimental snobbery of Gayev. Beautifully fluctuating between comic absurdity and pathos, the most Chekhovian performance is that of the florid-faced John Nettleton as the landowner, Simeonov-Pishchik, who can fall asleep mid-sentence or wolf down Ranevskaya's pills as if it were the most natural behaviour in the world.

A sense of emptiness does prevail, however, exacerbated by Leslie Travers' bleak design. The cherry orchard is evoked by a single, arachnoid-looking branch on an overhead panel. The house already looks stripped to the bone. There's just one toy a rocking horse in the nursery. How can you evoke the paralysing nostalgia or the pain of their loss, if the family seems barely to have lived in the property from which they are evicted?

To 7 June (01243 781312)

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