Monday 4 July 2011

Theatre Review: Directors' Showcase (Orange Tree Theatre)

The Spring season at Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre concludes, as usual, with the Directors’ Showcase programme: a double-bill of short plays directed by the theatre’s two trainee directors. This year, the Showcase presents the work of Jimmy Grimes and Teunkie van der Sluijs, and avails itself of the talents of several of the actors from the theatre’s just-concluded run of Three Farces. Grimes presents Then the Snow Came, a new piece that he has researched with Richmond’s homeless charity SPEAR and that combines verbatim text with improvisation and (briefly) puppetry, while van der Sluijs directs Winter, a play by Jon Fosse, the prize-winning Norwegian writer whose I Am the Wind deeply divided audiences at the Young Vic earlier this year. These two apparently contrasting pieces prove surprisingly complementary and make for a challenging but rewarding evening at the Orange Tree.

Taking as its inspiration an impromptu night that the director himself spent on the streets of Richmond, Grimes’s Then the Snow Came focuses on the relationship between two homeless men, the bolshie ex-con Mickey (Kieron Jecchinis) and the more soulful and philosophically-inclined Liverpudlian Stu (Daniel Cheyne). The play follows the two men as they move around various Richmond locations, looking for a place to sleep, begging, bantering about Star Trek, and talking about their lives. Matters come to a head when Mickey is faced with the challenge of scraping together some money for a trip up North for a family emergency. Threaded throughout the narrative is Oscar Wilde’s tale The Happy Prince, the story of which Stu tells to Mickey and which serves throughout as a comment on some of the themes of the piece and a counterpoint to the men’s developing relationship.

It’s an ambitious mixture of elements, but one that Grimes manages to pull off with care and skill, resulting in a compassionate but unsentimental drama that’s shot through with both pain and humour, as well as some nicely judged poetic and expressionistic flourishes. Jecchinis and Cheyne give superbly naturalistic performances, their efforts complemented by the appearances of a multi-tasking Ed Bennett who cameos in no less than seven different roles, the most significant being that of a police officer whose retrospective narration structures the piece.

Although some of the scenes are a little short, the play maintains fluidity and momentum throughout, helped along by an effective and economical design by Katy Mills. There’s also an especially affecting late scene between Mickey and his estranged teenage son Ben, who’s very well played by Michael Smith. Although it goes far beyond reportage, there’s no doubting that the various local references, and the fact that the audience is watching the play in a venue in the very town in which it is set, contribute to the resonance of Then the Snow Came, giving the piece an urgent and at times implicatory power. It’s a considerable piece of work and a terrific achievement for Grimes and his collaborators.

If the following piece, Winter, emerges as rather less satisfying then that’s due to Fosse’s play, rather than any major faults in the production. Like I Am the Wind, this is another elliptical two-hander, this time focusing upon an encounter between a married businessman and a disturbed young woman in an unnamed city. At times, the piece suggests a Pinterized variant on the plot of a screwball comedy, the kind in which a “crazy lady” shakes up the life of a staid, conservative man.

But not only does Fosse’s text offer next to no humour it also offers little in the way of real insight. What is offered is more of the gratingly repetitious, “rhythmic” dialogue that is evidently the playwright’s trademark, and which is no doubt faithfully rendered in Ann Henning Jocelyn’s translation. Playing ‘The Woman,’ poor Jennifer Higham has to declaim the phrase “I am your lady” so many times that she starts to sound like the opening lines of the chorus to Jennifer Rush’s “The Power of Love,” stuck on repeat. Thus the play’s portrait of two people struggling towards connection never becomes quite as affecting as it should.

Despite the play’s limitations, both actors come through with committed performances. Higham, often cast for fresh-faced wholesomeness, shakes off that particular shackle with a striking interpretation that encompasses strung-out neediness, foul-mouthed ferocity and girlish vulnerability. Always a sympathetic stage presence, Stuart Fox is touchingly tentative here as ‘The Man,’ although one can’t help but wish that he was playing less of an archetype and more of a freshly imagined character. The quality of the acting, and the sensitivity of van der Sluijs’s direction, ensure that the production sustains interest, in spite of the qualms one may have about the script itself, while Sam Dowson’s design and Stuart Burgess’s lighting help to convey a palpable sense of atmosphere as the action shifts from park to hotel room and back again. Overall, then, this is an impressive double-bill that makes for a strong conclusion to an altogether excellent season at the Orange Tree.

The Directors Showcase runs until 9th July. Further information at the Orange Tree website.

Reviewed for The Public Reviews.

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