“I’m not going to bandy existentialism with you!” proclaims one character to another in James Saunders’s Next Time I’ll Sing to You. Unfortunately, bandying existentialism is just what the protagonists of Saunders’s play spend too much time of their time doing. Saunders’s 1963 work was the first play that the Orange Tree’s artistic director Sam Walters ever directed. That and the playwright’s long association with the Orange Tree must explain the appearance of Next Time I’ll Sing to You in the theatre’s 40th anniversary line-up. If only the play itself was up to scratch. Based on the true story of Alexander James Mason, known as the hermit of Great Canfield, the piece is structured as an “investigation” into Mason’s life and his self-imposed ostracism undertaken each evening by four characters - Rudge (Aden Gillett), Meff (Roger Parkins), Dust (Brendan Patricks) and Lizzie (Holly Elmes) - as a self-reflexive inquiry into “the purpose of existence.”
There’s promise in the premise but the spirits of Pirandello and Beckett loom much too largely in Saunders’s text, in which human interest is swamped by tedious philosophical wittering, bad jokes and endless meta-theatrical commentary. (“You’re holding up the flow of the action.” “I didn’t know there was any.” Ho ho.) Gales of knowing laughter greeted every other utterance on Press Night, but I found myself stifling groans. Anthony Clark’s production boasts committed performances from the cast - with especially good work from Gillett and from Jamie Newall as the Hermit. But their best efforts can’t save this flimsy exercise. It’s billed as “startling and innovative.” Pretentious and derivative would be closer to the mark.
The production runs for 2 hours 10 minutes and is booking until 10 December. Further information at the Orange Tree website.