The Cherry Orchard, Noël Coward Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

The best Chekhov productions that I've ever witnessed have, not unnaturally, been performed by Russian actors – Lev Dodin's matchless troupe at the Maly Theatre, St Petersburg and the Russian outfit directed by our own semi-expatriated Declan Donnellan. So I'm sorry to report that I was disappointed by the two Chekhov stagings that Moscow's Sovremennik Company brought to its now-completed residency at the Noël Coward Theatre, especially after the ensemble's masterly evocation of life in a Soviet prison camp in Into the Whirlwind.

Marina Neelova, brilliant as Natalia Ginzburg in the latter, was on charismatic form again portraying Ranevskaya in Galina Volchek's account of The Cherry Orchard. Into a performance that vividly shows you the heartache beneath the hectic mood swings of this maddeningly feckless landowner, Neelova weaves some lovely touches that suggest an amusingly fuzzy line between the tactical and the spontaneous in her distracted flights from economic reality. She tears the telegram from her lover in Paris with a final, contemptuous flourish, only to be seen slyly piecing it together again.

Sergey Garmash brings a sexy combination of virile, new-broom energy and nostalgic regret to Lopakhin, the son-of-a-serf merchant who here explodes with demented frustration as Ranevskaya and her brother (a spot-on, evasively eccentric and spoilt Igor Kvasha) cross legs in synch in childish solidarity against his wise advice. But the production has a hideous design, many of the performances are broad or bizarrely cast (Valery Shalnykh is old enough to be the father of the young, snidely uppish-through-travel butler, Yasha) and, characteristically, an out-of-time candlelit return to their old haunt of the departed dwellers destroys Chekhov's perfectly calibrated diminuendo with the death of the forgotten old retainer, Firs.