A silver slide. Vases of yellow flowers. Some red balloons... James Turner’s spare set design for Rania Jumaily’s production of Adam Barnard’s new play buckets may possibly reflect straitened circumstances at the Orange Tree, since the theatre is (for shame) no longer in receipt of regular Arts Council funding.
But, with its suggestions of the festive and the funereal, the mischievous and the melancholy, Turner’s simple, sparse design actually provides an ideal ambience for Barnard’s play, which touches on Big Themes - memory, mortality and the moments that shape and define human lives - in a mostly merry, ludic manner.
An alumnus of the Orange Tree Trainee Director scheme 2003-4 (he’s directed Torben Betts’s The Company Man at the OT, amongst other shows), Barnard has increasingly turned his hand to writing in recent years, and his short play Closer Scrutiny was a memorable part of the Orange Tree’s great Festival last year, an extravaganza that was one of 2014’s theatre highlights for me.
buckets, Barnard’s first full-length play, is a very different proposition, however. The action here unfolds in around thirty scenes: some super-short sketches, others more sustained narratives. In them, a talented multi-tasking sestet of performers - John Foster, Tom Gill, Charlotte Josephine, Sarah Malin, Rona Morison and Sophie Steer - zip through multiple roles and scenarios that range from the realist to the absurd, incorporating elements of soap opera, surrealism and even sci-fi. Doctor/patient and teacher/pupil duologues, an ailing teen’s encounter with a pop star, a suicide attempt that gets interrupted by a mugging… these are just some of the many incidents that the play presents as it explores time and the transience of human experience.
With dialogue unattributed, the number of cast members unspecified, and a flexible approach to staging advocated, the form of Barnard’s play owes a rather too obvious debt to selected Caryl Churchill works, notably 1978’s The After-Dinner Joke (itself revived at the Orange Tree last year) and 2012’s Love and Information. But it’s a friendlier piece than either, and while some sections fail to ignite or feel half-baked, others prove engaging and effective.
Much of the appeal of the evening is down to the cast, who, barefooted and casually clothed, work together wonderfully well. Malin’s metamorphoses into a stroppy teen and, later, a parent bemoaning her daughter’s lack of rebelliousness are especially choice, and Foster is just wonderful in a lengthy sequence in which his character expresses curiosity about the longevity (or otherwise) of the existence he’s been assigned under a so-called “Living Vessels Incorporated” scheme.
There’s a slightly calculated eccentricity to the production that might grate on some, and a few a cappella musical interludes add disappointingly little to the experience. But, moment by moment, there’s much to delight and surprise in buckets.
Booking until 27th June. Further information at the Orange Tree website.