Cherry red drama

The Very Cherry Project (ARC Acting Studio)

Christ Church Milton

September 28 – October 2

Everything is bathed in cherry red lighting as we enter Milton’s Christ Church for ARC Acting Studio’s production (of sorts) of Anton Chekhov’s final work. It’s not just the aesthetics that place us firmly in the esteemed playwright’s “The Cherry Orchard”, however. “All Russia is our orchard” Trofimov says to Anya in reveal of the cherry orchard’s symbolism of the past. Indeed, the theme of the effects of social change remains at the forefront of the show’s messaging, despite its unique presentation style.

“The Very Cherry Project”, which has been adapted, designed and directed by Michael Beh, features the talents of two ensembles, the Seniors Ensemble for people over 60 and the ARC Professional Training Ensemble of emerging artists, presenting refractions of the play, with words and scenes reimagined, revisioned, re-languaged and reappropriated to different characters. The experimental approach, however, which sees repeat of lines and scene snippets by other actors means that some familiarity with the complex story’s dramatisation of the socio-economic forces in Russia at the turn of the 20th century, is helpful.

The tale is of an aristocratic Russian landowner who returns to her family estate (which includes a large and well-known cherry orchard) just before it is auctioned to pay the mortgage, only to allow its sale to the son of a former serf, but, it is also about a large group of characters who have a relationship with the titular orchard. This gives us many diverse and uniquely-flawed characters and the performers are magnificent in their characterisation of these. In particular, Stephanie Williams is vibrant as the attention seeking housemaid Dunyasha, while Jack Dakin brings some David Bowie swagger to the idealistic student Trofimov. And members of the Seniors ensemble are like a Greek chorus of sorts in support of the main action, sometimes even drawing their own focus as they sit as servants on the cherry orchard estate watching the action of characters from their upstairs world, before taking it in turn to contribute to the commentary on the dream-shattering effects of the country’s mass emancipation upon aristocrats and former slavery serfs alike.

A lavish attention to aesthetic detail delights from the very first scene, with the principal cast heeling about in fabulously opulent costumes of lush red and purple fabrics upon fabrics. And even if some conversations occur outside of spotlight sections and the blurred lines of realism result in some strange on-stage occurrences, its Russian sensibilities are clear, providing incentive to see more of Chekhov’s classic theatre works, as well as red-hot opportunity for its group of performers to hone their craft in what is clearly a joyous experience of expression and personal creativity.

Photos c/o – Naz Mulla

Henrik homage

Ghosts (The Curators)

The Curators Vintage Pop-Up Theatre

July 19 – August 4

The Curator’s homage to great Norwegian playwright Henrick Ibsen’s controversial “Ghosts” is innovative from even the initial moments of its experience. Smoke haze meets the audience upon entrance into the Vintage Pop-Up Theatre in Red Hill’s St Barnabas Hall. In opening, characters emerge to move forward towards us from behind a makeshift plastic scrim screen. A menacing soundtrack signals the carpenter Engstrand’s (Warwick Comber) pressure of his daughter, Regina (Lauren Roche) to become a prostitute. Their resulting course language in brash interaction appears to be as jarring within the 1881 play, however, ultimately it does detract anything from the work as a whole, which is excellent in every regard.

Regina is maid to the widowed Helene Alving (Lisa Hickey) who is horrified to overhear Regina flirting with her beloved bohemian artist son Oswald (Patrick Shearer) who has recently returned from years of exile in Paris, where his mother sent him to avoid him being corrupted by his father. The layered story from there is of Helene who is in the final stages of opening an orphanage with her charitable partner, and the story’s moral compass, Pastor Manders (Tom Coyle) in memory of her husband Captain Alving. Regretful of staying with the debauched Captain out of social obligation, she thinks that opening the facility in his name will put to rest rumours, but also guarantee that none of his money will go to their son, whom Helene wants to inherit from her alone. It is a slow build to almost Oedipus territory as Helene determines to liberate her son from the ghosts of their past until things take a sudden turn in a tumultuous Act Two as the extent of Oswald’s suffering from the syphilis he ‘inherited’ from his father is fully revealed.


The tragic story of Helene and her son Osworld is a mythic one, especially as the two descend into the darkness of Act Two. As great works so often are, the play is full of contemplative themes and quotable dialogue about each of us being the ghosts of our past, and in The Curator’s hands this realisation stands strong as not just a tribute to Ibsen but to being human, through its highlight of the themes of duty, reputation and deception. The playwright’s advocacy and sympathy for women through inclusion of strong female characters is not diminished either.

The heavy material of “Ghosts” demands much from its actors and all members of the cast deliver in this regard. Act Two is swift but packs a big punch as hinted-at devastating revelations are unravelled, making the agonising ending quite affecting thanks in particular to Shearer’s powerful and precise performance in the show’s climatic scene. He is an expressive performer down to every possible nuance, especially when in wide-eyed defence of his hyperbolical La Boheme lifestyle. Indeed, his textured performance as the petulant painter is as polished as any I have seen in professional productions of Isben’s works. Also of particular note is Hickey who displays a commanding stage presence as the desperate secret-keeper Helene, possessed in the defence of her own child.

Dynamic make-up and detailed costumes serve as similar stand-out aspects of the polished production; the authentically-ostentatious but constrictive costuming is immediately noteworthy. And Bethany Scott’s lighting design serves as a frame for each of the show’s acts. Director Michael Beh’s set design is such that we see the play rip through the plastic wrapping of society not just metaphorically but literally, thanks to the initial plastic-wrap of furniture items which are repositioned in ‘reboot’ during blackout scene changes which provkes further interest.

Like many of Ibsen’s plays, “Ghosts” is a scathing commentary on 19th-century morality. Because of its subject matter, which includes religion, venereal disease, incest and euthanasia, it is an ambitious theatrical undertaking, especially from an independent theatre company, which makes The Curator’s production particularly outstanding. The show is not only exciting, but difficult to fault. The company brings the classic to life in a creative way, but does so in a manner that fosters refreshed audience interest in its playwright. While it may not be a mainstream manifestation of a work of realism and, therefore, is perhaps an acquired taste, its design elements are impressive and its performances are captivating, meaning that we can only await with anticipation what the company tackles for its next production.