The Cherry Orchard, Sheffield Crucible Theatre

JOANNA Lumley is making her Crucible debut as the aristocratic Madame Ranevskaya in Jonathan Miller's first production on a British stage for ten years.

Pick your cherry, the voice and poise of Lumley or the revered theatre intellect of Miller, but either way, go the extra mile to Sheffield in your theatre travels over the next week.

Fallen on hard times after living the high life in Paris, Lumley's flighty Madame Ravenskaya has returned to her Russian country estate home to oversee the sale of her beloved cherry orchard with utmost reluctance.

She and her rude, reckless family are loath to break with a life soon to be confined to the past by the trampling hooves of the revolution.

In Chekhov's comedy of life, Miller has the comedy of indulgence, ennui and arrogance holding sway- some of it self-pitying, as in Hugh Sachs's eternally disappointed Yepichodov - but sadness still permeates the brittle surface.

The humour here is reminiscent of Samuel Beckett's plays, but the cherries in Miller's orchard are bitter, certainly more so than in John Mortimer's compassionate adaptation at York Theatre Royal in 1999.

On Isabella Bywater's expansive set of a wooden house - where you can see through the frames as if it were an X-ray - Miller creates intimacy and insularity and a sense of being trapped, despite the chance to move on.

Conversations overlap, a rarity in theatre, but one of those touches that gives Miller's production its distinctive personality, while scenes move at a pace that defies change or Miller holds a mood like a sustained musical note, particularly when sadness spreads across Lumley's face, her posture slumped for the only time at the news of the orchard's sale.

Lumley looks as lusciously Lumley as you would expect, and her Ravenskaya is marked both by a deep-set sadness at the loss of her son and a refusal to enter the world of adult responsibility.

There is a distance to her, yet she is still captivating.

As adapted in no frills form by Pam Gems, this is a harsh yet humorous Cherry Orchard, full of realism and stripped of the vestiges of romance. In our self-centred age, it is more apt than ever.

  • Joanna Lumley in The Cherry Orchard, Sheffield Crucible Theatre, until May 7. Box office: 0114 249 6000.

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