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Cherry orchard's bitter-sweet fruit expertly nurtured in the Loft

The Cherry Orchard, Loft Theatre, Leamington, until September 30

We smile in wonderment at the foibles and eccentricities of an aristocratic Russian family.

In the same breath, we feel for them over the tragedy that underlies their crumbling world.

This is the double-edged sword which provides the real thrust of Chekhov’s most poignant play and demands the utmost skill and understanding from a theatre company. The Loft bares its teeth for a new season with a finely crafted production in which the symbolic decline of an old order strikes many notes which are relevant to the modern age.

Its relentless nostalgia is superbly represented and performed by Mary MacDonald’s fluttery matriach and Jeremy Heynes’s old family retainer.

Her Madame Ranevskaya lives in a fantasy world in which her doomed family estate will be saved and her memories of her son’s death can be locked away.

His muttering, incomprehensible Firs, who suddenly shoots bolts of truth about life and longevity, embodies a comic richness which is in reality an ominous pointer to the play’s bitter final scene.

These characters rightly stand out in director William Wilkinson’s overall concept of a society undergoing massive change.

The serfdom of the 19th century has been abolished, the aristocracy is in decline and the middle class is in the ascendancy.

Richard Terry as the brash Lopakhin, representing the new materialism, effectively emphasises the well-meaning, if unsentimental, nature of the shrewd businessman seeking to demolish the much-loved cherry orchard for a building site.

There is further notable work from a strong cast including Dave Crossfield as the ‘eternal’ student espousing left-wing ideology, Martin Cosgrif as the old-time eccentric addicted to billiards, Emma Cooper’s humourless family ‘rock’ and Gus MacDonald’s cheery, cash-strapped neighbour.

Chekhov himself called the piece a comedy. While this might not fall into today’s general idea of the category, there is possibly room for more humour here. Either way, though, this is a production of considerable substance.

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