Tuesday 27 May 2014

Theatre Review: Directors Showcase (Squirrels/The After-Dinner Joke) (Orange Tree)

I always particularly look forward to the Orange Tree’s annual Directors Showcase. These short Spring seasons of plays selected and directed by the theatre’s resident trainee directors have, over the years, yielded some terrific work: the marvellously confounding 2012 triple-bill which mixed up St. John Hankin’s warm proto-Home Alone  Edwardian escapade, The Burglar Who Failed, Omar El-Khairy’s chilling Hanekian home invasion drama  Return To Sender and Amiri Baraka’s still-searing Dutchman remains one of my all-time favourite OT evenings.  In his programme note for this year’s presentation – sadly the last of such seasons under his aegis following his retirement in a couple of months - Artistic Director Sam Walters gently reminds us of the importance and the innovation of this scheme, which has given an early start to more than fifty aspiring directors, many of whom have gone on to have auspicious careers.        
This year’s trainees, Lewis Gray and Sophie Boyce, have chosen to present obscure-ish 1970s work by two major playwrights, pairing David Mamet’s 1974 three-hander Squirrels with Caryl Churchill’s 1978 The After-Dinner Joke, a piece originally commissioned for the BBC’s (late and very much-lamented) Play for Today series. The double-bill adds up to a provocative, engaging evening, and offers a valuable opportunity to see these rarely-performed works in such an intimate setting.          

Mamet’s piece is a highly mannered, Absurdist-inflected musing on the creative process, in which a writer and his amanuensis tussle over the composition of a narrative. Arthur, an egotistical author who has been working on the opening line of a story involving a man's encounter with a squirrel for fifteen years, has hired Edmond, a fledgling writer, as his secretary/collaborator. The two men’s styles predictably clash, and the stage would seem to be set for a prototypical Mametian male locking-of-horns -  were the two men not frequently joined by Arthur's cleaning lady, also an aspiring writer, who chips in with her own observations and suggestions, as the play shows snatches of stories getting written, adapted, tossed away, recycled and reclaimed.   

Peter McGovern in Squirrels (Photo: Robert Day)

I'm not sure that the super-arch Squirrels is much more than a curiosity, ultimately, and some may find its writerly wrangling tedious. But, despite an occasional staticism, Lewis Gray’s polished production proves entertaining thanks to well-honed  interplay from David Mallinson and Peter McGovern as Arthur and Edmond, and to  Janet Spencer-Turner whose wily gem of a turn as the Cleaning Lady (possibly the most hardboiled of the trio), provides almost all of the funniest moments here.   

Churchill’s piece is an obviously livelier proposition. The After-Dinner Joke is a broad, often cartoonish, Python-esque satire  that, rather like the playwright’s recent Love and Information, whips through over sixty scenes – most of them skits and sketches - as it anatomises and satirises the politics of charity. A through-line of sorts is provided by the experiences of Selby, an eager young woman (“I’m not a Christian. But I feel just as guilty as if I was”) who gives up her job as a personal secretary and takes up a post as one of her company’s charity campaign organisers, discovering along the way the ethical complications involved in the raising and distribution of charity funds.  

The play’s theses – that charities are businesses deeply implicated in capitalism; that money should actually be given to “peasant rebellions" which would bring about real change; and that, yeah, everything is political, OK?  - are glib, transparent and delivered without much shading; this is certainly a play to make those who don’t give to charity feel a whole lot better about themselves.

Ben Onwukwe and Lydia Larson in The After-Dinner Joke (Photo: Robert Day) 

But the piece boasts so much cheeky theatrical brio that it’s hard not to succumb, even if you find yourself objecting to the triteness of most of Churchill’s conclusions here. There’s speech-making; slapstick; some inspired silent movie, advertising and rock-star parodies; and a whole host of gags. Boyce’s carnivalesque production is impeccable in its zest and its attention to tone, while its marvellous quintet of a cast – Lydia Larson, Ben Onwukwe, Jonathan Christie, David Gooderson and Rebecca Pownall - share over forty roles and inhabit them with supreme inventiveness. (Onwukwe playing a baby is truly something to behold.)  If the scattershot approach leads to a certain shallowness of argument, at the heart of the shenanigans and spoofery is a radiant performance from Larson that brings genuine poignancy to Selby’s discovery of the politics, perils and compromises involved in “doing good.” This excellent production deserves a longer life.

The Directors Showcase is booking until 7 June. Further information at the Orange Tree website.

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