The Hotel Cerise

Theatre
3 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

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Bonnie Greer's smart but flawed new play sets Chekhov's 'The Cherry Orchard' in Obama's America

In ‘Withnail & I’, Chekhov is ‘always full of women staring out of windows, whining about ducks going to Moscow.’ Well, not this time. Playwright and ‘Question Time’ regular Bonnie Greer’s rewrite of ‘The Cherry Orchard’ pulls it into the present day, refocusing it around a rich black family in the run up to the 2016 presidential election. 

We’re in Michigan and the Hotel Cerise is – or was, in its glory days – a getaway for the black elite. Ella Fitzgerald stayed there, Dinah Washington too. It’s faded now and its owner Anita Mountjoy is faced with the choice of selling it or financial ruin.

Ellen Thomas puts in a strong performance as Anita the matriarch, blithe and disconnected from reality, whose family simper and pander to her. There’s a great performance, too, from Abhin Galeya as Karim, the working class upstart who buys the hotel. With a spry, buzzing performance he shows his desire to climb through the social ranks. 

Some more explicit attempts to bring the play up to date - words like ‘millennial’, ‘crowdfunding’ - sound false, out of place. But otherwise it’s a very sharp adaptation that plays out in two parallel streams: a contemporary political narrative that reminisces about Obama and worries about a precarious future, and a big piece of stately, traditional drama, a Chekhovian play that frets in an arch way about the plights of aristocrats.

At first those two streams run parallel, the timeless and the contemporary, but as the curtain comes down on act one the streams converge pulling politics and race, theatre and real life, along in the current. A ghost appears reproaching Anita for only serving the needs of the rich. That ghost seems to chide the theatrical canon, too, for its exclusivity and its homogeneity. It’s hokily done, one step away from a sheet over the head and wailing, but the sentiment is quite profound. 

A shame, then, that the second half feels so much flimsier. It’s a loose-end-tying affair, fluffed up with inexplicably long dance scenes, that exposes the slackness of pace and direction. Every scene is a rowdy rush of characters moving in and out of rooms, but the timing is slightly off. So although Greer has done something very clever with a mighty play, the production isn’t faultless. 

By: Tim Bano

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