Monday 23 June 2014

Theatre Review: Orange Tree Theatre Festival (Orange Tree)


Betsy Field in 7 to 75 (Photo: Robert Day)

Mums and sons. Daughters and Dads. Shakespeare/Coward/Beckett mash-ups. Gay rainbow rosary beads. Edward Snowden. Katy Perry. Plaintive (but playful) piano-scored puppetry. Synchronised hula hooping, Contemplations of the cosmos. What do all these (and much, much more) have in common? Well, they all feature, in one form or another, in the Orange Tree’s extraordinary Festival of Theatre, the last hurrah of Sam Walters’s 42 year directorship of the venue.

With typical self-deprecation, Walters has chosen to close out his tenure not with a self-directed production of a lost classic or a familiar favourite. Rather, he’s serving as producer and “curator” of this Festival, having invited a host of the theatre’s recent trainees to propose and direct short plays for production. The results, split into three Programmes which can be viewed on separate afternoons/evenings or together on one day, are stunning, and deserve much more media attention than they’ve thus far received. I saw all three Programmes on Saturday, and left elated and inspired by the sheer diversity and quality of the work on display, by the connections that the Festival makes cumulatively, and by its exhilarating mix of the traditional and the weirdly, wildly experimental.

Rebecca Egan in Non-Esential Personnel (Photo: Sarah Lam) 

The Lunchtime Programme comprises two plays, opening with Caitlin Shannon’s Non-Essential Personnel, directed by Nadia Papachronopoulou, and followed by David Siebert’s revival of Christopher Durang’s The Actor’s Nightmare. Shannon was the author of The Getaway, the highlight of last year’s OT Directors Showcase. And she brings a similar kind of radiant empathy to this new “duet,” in which a widowed mother and her son (Rebecca Egan and Jack Parry-Jones) – she a council worker sent home as “non-essential personnel” following a bomb scare and he an astronomy/Internet obsessive dodging his exam revision – confront their grief and tentatively face the future. It’s a tender, intimate piece with lovely details, and Papachronopoulou’s sensitive production features a quiet heartbreaker of a turn from Egan as the Mum.

Paul Kemp and Carolyn Backhouse in The Actor's Nightmare (Photo: Sarah Lam)
By contrast, Durang’s The Actor’s Nightmare is a marvellously contrasting proposition: a riotous meta-ride in which an accountant finds himself forced on stage as an understudy in productions of Coward, Shakespeare, Beckett and A Man For All Seasons, and attempts to fudge and ad-lib his way through the scenes. With a brilliant tour de force of increasing desperation from Paul Kemp in the lead, and delicious full-on turns from Carolyn Backhouse, Rebecca Pownall, Amy Neilson Smith and Christopher Heyward in support (Heyward’s hamming as Horatio in Hamlet is truly spectacular), Siebert’s production is pure pleasure and leaves you eager to see more of the great Durang’s work produced on UK stages.

Johanna Tincey and Paul Woodson in Mobile 4 (Photo: Robert Day)

Programme 2 mixes up four equally contrasting pieces. Orlando Wells’s engrossing Four Days in Hong Kong offers a distilled, plausible take on the Snowden saga, dramatising the whistleblower’s meeting with journos Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Ewen MacAskill in a Hong Kong hotel. Punctuated by portentous passages from 1984, and with great performances from Laurence Dobiesz, Karen Archer and Nicholas Cass-Beggs, Phoebe Barron’s taut production has style, wit and assurance as it lucidly brings out the play’s concern with privacy in the digital age and the moral implications of Snowden’s actions. John Terry contributes a fine production of Stephen Jeffreys’s funny, snark-with-a-heart Mobile 4, which explores the dynamics among a Northern commune involved in the art world, and Arlene Hutton’s Mametian I Dream Before I Take the Stand, directed by Katie Henry, finds a woman interrogated about her behaviour prior to a sexual assault. In terms of argument, this is probably the thinnest, most obvious piece here, but intense performances from David Antrobus and Heather Saunders maintain the tension.  Meanwhile, Amy Hodge’s thrilling, beautiful work-in-progress devised piece 7 to 75 suggests Caryl Churchill and Pina Baush collaborating on a reimagining of Albee’s Three Tall Women, as a quintet of performers – Simonetta Alessandri, Rohanna Eade, Betsy Field, Stella Nodine and Jessie Richardson –present five stages of womanhood via unashamed navel-gazing (literally), confessional monologues and a glorious interpretive dance sequence set – yes - to Katy Perry’s “Roar.”

Duck, Death and the Tulip (Photo: Robert Day)
The evening concludes with the mortality-themed Programme 1: Adam Barnard’s involving father/daughter drama Closer Scrutiny, with its intriguing structural quirk and moving finale; War Horse collaborators Andy Brunskill and Jimmy Grimes’s exquisitely enchanting puppet reimagining of Wolf Erlbruch’s Duck, Death and the Tulip; and, finally, David Lewis’s Skeletons.

Paul Gilmore in Skeletons (Photo: Robert Day)
Here Lewis mines a similar type of family dysfunction to his previous How to be Happy and Seven Year Twitch, as a gay son (Ben Warwick), a voyeur brother (Paul Gilmore), a harried sister (Amanda Royle) and an Alzheimer’s-afflicted mum (Diana Payan) reunite for ructions and revelations. Happily, Lewis – who might be described as what Alan Ayckbourn would be if Ayckbourn was actually any good – has some terrific jokes and twists up his sleeve here (including a classic “coming out” gag) and Alex Lass’s well-judged production proves laugh-out-loud funny and sometimes touching too. Richly rewarding, challenging and surprising, the Festival as a whole is something special and makes for an original and inspired end to Walters’s tenure. It runs for just one more week, until June 29th, and I urge you to book for as much of it as you can.

Further information at the Orange Tree website.

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