Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Theatre Review: Springs Eternal (Orange Tree)

Julia Hills and Stuart Fox in Springs Eternal (Photo: Robert Day) 

So here’s a super start to a significant season at Richmond’s Orange Tree. Sam Walters, who ends his remarkable 42 year tenure as artistic director of the theatre next year, opens his final season by directing the rather belated world premiere of a 1943 play by Susan Glaspell. Glaspell (1876-1948) is one of the (many) playwrights whose work the Orange Tree has rediscovered for British audiences; the theatre has produced a number of her plays over the years, the last being a superb take on the Pulitzer Prize-winning Alison’s House back in 2009. Springs Eternal was Glaspell’s last play and one that, for a variety of reasons, slipped through the net. It turns out to be an intriguing, character-rich piece whose humour and humanity Walters’s deft, sensitive production brings beautifully to the fore.

The play is concerned with exploring different attitudes to World War II and, in particular, generational splits and schisms in relation to the conflict. It unfolds in the boho New York State household of one Owen Higgenbothem (Stuart Fox), an academic who, some years previously, wrote a book entitled The World of Tomorrow which set out his idealistic vision of the future. Bitterly disillusioned by the advent of war, Higgenbothem has retreated into a comfortable kind of cynicism that impacts upon those around him, from his second wife Margaret (Julia Hills) to his son Harold (Jeremy Lloyd) to his housekeeper Mrs. Soames (Auriol Smith) whose own son, Freddie, is fighting in the Pacific.

Glaspell clutters her scenario a tad - there’s an apparent aborted elopement and some complicated family dynamics that take some working out – and she clearly enjoys her characters’ interactions so much that she’s occasionally a bit indulgent with them; in particular, some windy musings in the second half could have been snipped. But gradually the drama’s concerns come into focus. Quirkier in tone than much of Glaspell’s work, the writing here sometimes has the wonderful loopy lyricism of a John Guare. “He has made my love ridiculous!” wails one character, to which another replies: “He didn’t mean to. He has the flu”, and the actors clearly relish the original opportunities provided for them.

Indeed, the production boast several performances that it’s worth travelling many miles to see. Julia Hills is terrifically sympathetic as the put-upon Margaret; a fierce late scene in which she expresses her feelings of anger and resentment at Owen’s attitude proves a pivotal moment. Miranda Foster does a delicious gem of a comic performance as his slightly batty first wife, whether moved by her own memoirs or pausing, apropos of nothing, to muse: “Why haven’t I seen more of Africa?” Rosy-cheeked Jeremy Lloyd is adorably earnest as the self-reliant conscientious objector son dealing with his father’s disappointment and disdain. And Auriol Smith works wonders as the house-keeper whose common sense pronouncements cut through the intellectual posturing of her employer. This isn’t Glaspell’s most perfectly constructed work, but Walters’s production makes it an exquisite, involving evening overall.

The production is booking until 19th October.

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