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The Hotel Cerise at Theatre Royal Stratford East

The Hotel Cerise Theatre Royal Stratford East Andrew Dennis (Cornell Baxter) and Ellen Thomas (Anita Lily Mountjoy Sinclaire Thimbutu)
The Hotel Cerise Theatre Royal Stratford East Andrew Dennis (Cornell Baxter) and Ellen Thomas (Anita Lily Mountjoy Sinclaire Thimbutu) Credit Stephen Cummiskey

The first surprise of the evening came when the curtain rose and a white man crossed the stage looking melancholy and a bit distracted. The set itself is very atmospheric. It depicts the nursery in a large hotel that in the past had been the destination for rich, bourgeois black Americans but it’s now suffering from faded glory and the furniture is covered in dust cloths. Behind some enormous double-doors are vast tree-like structures representing the cherry orchard behind the hotel. I mention the man’s colour because The Hotel Cerise is playwright Bonnie Greer’s adaptation of Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard where the Russian characters of the original have been transposed to black characters in modern-day Michigan. However, we soon meet the other characters and it turns out that the white character is “Fielding” the Mountjoy family’s butler cum valet cum faithful old retainer – for the Mountjoys were once a very wealthy family who owned the hotel and the cherry orchard, bequeathed to them by their white slave master.

Anita Lily has returned from an unhappy time in France to her old home. She’s up to her ears in debt and the estate will have to be sold to pay off the money she owes but she won’t face reality and with help from her brother A.L., she’s sure she can turn things around and save her home.

In her programme notes, Greer states that the play “is not/cannot be an adaptation in the strict sense” but apart from the transposing of time and place and the addition of a dead son who is buried in the orchard, anyone who knows the Chekov original will spot the similarities immediately. Chekov’s classic play is a well-chosen starting point but unfortunately, The Hotel Cerise comes nowhere near the original and is quite frankly is a bit of a mess and very confusing.

For a lot of the play, the action is very stilted – probably due to the influence of the original but the action is confused by an earth tremor which throws everyone to the floor seemingly for no reason. Whether this is a metaphorical tremor to show us how the family have fallen, I have no idea but whatever it was there for, it stopped the action and was very confusing. Then an old slave woman appears and talks to Anita Lily whilst the rest of the cast stand frozen in time. Why does this apparition appear and why can just Anita Lily see and hear her?

Then the second half began with the whole cast dressed in 70’s disco wear complete with Elvis jumpsuits and large Afros dancing to Earth Wind & Fire’s “Boogie Wonderland”! There was no explanation as to why they were dressed that way and why there was suddenly a disco taking place – cue more confusion. Along the way, there was also some stylised, contemporary dance when the entire cast turned into marching soldiers – yet more confusion.

Greer seems to be making a number of points but none of which hit the mark. By portraying a middle-class black family as opposed to the usual working class, downtrodden black characters we often see on stage, she seems to be saying that all black Americans have their problems – it’s just the black American condition. One of the best lines in the play is “Africans are the new blacks” inferring that everyone is affected by immigration. Unfortunately, it’s full of long rambling speeches which are disconnected from each other – there’s simply no cohesion throughout.

The play is incredibly current – in fact, it’s set in the future (unless you’re seeing it after November 7th when it’ll be set in the past!) The last scene is happening the night before the forthcoming American election and there are mentions of Trump and Clinton – and for some unknown reason Brexit! The characters are scared as they fear that a black President is being replaced by someone they can’t relate to – especially if it’s Trump. Will it have to be re-written when the result of the election is known as the play runs until 12th November?

Ellen Thomas dominates as the splendidly named “Anita Lily Mountjoy Sinclaire Thimbutu” so much so that none of the other characters have a chance to develop and the relationships between the various characters seemed sketchy, to say the least.

I’ve mentioned confusion a lot in this review but it wasn’t just me. The person I went with was also confused and some people we spoke to during the interval and at the end were even more confused than we were. I’m sure Bonnie Greer wanted to make an important point or two but those points were obscured by the production which led to confusion and some fairly tepid applause at the end.

2 gold stars
Review by Alan Fitter

Michigan, USA. 2016.

As America’s first black president ends his eight years in office – Anita Mountjoy risks losing her family’s beloved hotel and cherry orchard, where Martin Luther King rested and Miles Davis played.  Are the family keepers of this proud history, or simply trapped by its ghosts?  Can ‘the audacity of hope’ survive?

Bonnie Greer’s new play is set in and around the Hotel Cerise – a famous retreat for middle-class black people during the time of segregation. It’s a landmark and symbol – a place where Black America once felt welcome and safe…

The Hotel Cerise
Thu 20th October – Sat 12th November 2016
Drama, On Stage
By Bonnie Greer Inspired by Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard
http://www.stratfordeast.com/

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