The Cherry Orchard, National Theatre: Olivier, London

Despair and laughter in equal doses

Reviewed,Paul Taylor
Monday 23 May 2011 00:00 BST

To quote one of the characters, "it's all go, go, go" in Howard Davies's sometimes questionable but unequivocally alive-and-kicking revival of The Cherry Orchard in the Olivier.

James Laurenson's excellent flouncy and fecklessly infantile Gaev uses the expression when the eccentric German magician (superb Sarah Woodward) impersonates a screaming baby, with a bundle of cloth in her arms, then hurls it to the floor and reminds Gaev that the sale of the estate leaves her homeless. In the context of so many painful partings, his remark that it is "all go, go, go" on the front of finding alternative accommodation has the sublime (unconsciously intended?) lack of tact we associate with the dropped bricks of Sir John Gielgud.

It is also typical of a translation by Andrew Upton that judders with robust, breezily anachronistic idioms. Some grate, but then "listen up" grates on me in any situation and I don't believe that Conleth Hill's passionate, conflicted and painfully funny Lopakhin (the businessman from serf stock who buys the estate) would use it. When another character says "Oh please don't let me be misunderstood" in a mischievously allusive manner, you wonder if this is going to turn into the "Hey, you, get offa my trees" version of this 1904 masterpiece.

People wanting sepia-tinted sedateness won't be jumping for joy. But despair can have its own anarchic, Gogol-esque energy. Tim McMullan turns Simyonov-Pischik, the landowner always on the cadge, into a killingly funny parody of a likeable bounder from a Feydeau farce. And the fact that Chekhov's characters are writhingly impaled on contradictions is conveyed at full-throttle. Conleth Hill's tubby Lopakhin looks as if he might literally explode with frustration at his improvident, snooty friends, but the next second he'll be attempting to nuzzle Ranyevskaya like a pet.

Zoë Wanamaker is magnificent as Ranyevskaya, suggesting,to an unprecedented extent the acuteness of this woman's emotional intelligence on the subject of why she is still prepared to choose romantic love over financial prudence. At the same time there is the fidgety irresponsibility of a woman who, when in doubt, tends to distract people with a grandly delivered insult. There is an anticipatory touch of the self-amused drama queens of Tennessee Williams. Bravo.

In rep to 28 July (020 7452 3000)

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