Monday 19 March 2012

Theatre Review: Play House, & Definitely the Bahamas (Orange Tree Theatre)

Lily James in Play House, photo by Robert Day

Directed by its author, the Orange Tree Theatre’s current double-bill pairs an early Martin Crimp play, Definitely the Bahamas, originally produced on BBC radio but staged at the Orange Tree in 1987, with a new work, Play House, that’s been specially commissioned to mark the theatre’s 40th anniversary. A Richmond resident, Crimp’s association with the Orange Tree goes back to his first forays as a dramatist. The theatre staged six of his plays in the 1980s and was therefore instrumental in getting his work seen and noticed. Among the many admirable aspects of the Orange Tree is its loyalty to the playwrights whose work it has put on. And Crimp’s return to the theatre that first produced him has turned the opening of this double-bill into something of an Event.

As dramas focusing upon two couples - one young and energetic, the other ageing and apparently settled - Play House and Definitely the Bahamas chime together quite nicely. Play House presents episodes in the life of Simon (Obi Abili) and Katrina (Lily James) as they set up home together. We witness the pair engaging in domestic duties (fixing a phone; cleaning the grimiest fridge the stage has ever seen) and some odder, more enigmatic escapades as well. Crimp has described the play as being about “the fragility and volatility of a relationship,” and he seems to be getting at the mundaneity and the strangeness of coupledom here - its pleasures and unease - as Katrina gradually reveals a scepticism about “playing house” that rivals that of the little girl in the Tammy Wynette song.

Unfolding in thirteen abrupt and riddling scenes, the drama conceals as much as it discloses. There are striking moments throughout and the scenes are sharply shaped and rhythmed at their best. But an air of wilful obscurity underpins the enterprise, and the piece isn’t especially satisfying dramatically. Rather, it comes out skimpy and sketchy: due to the structure, the characters’ declarations and tirades feel unmotivated and often fail to generate sufficient emotional weight.

This is despite the sterling work of the two performers. Abili and James (a young actress who’s capable of transforming herself utterly; she’s unrecognisable here from Vernon God Little and Othello) bring gusto and great physicality to their performances, especially in an exuberant dancing scene. But, apart from a few scattered insinuations about Katrina’s difficult relationship with her father, you may not feel that you know a great deal more about these characters at the end than you did at the beginning, making Play House a slightly frustrating experience despite its flashes of interest.

Definitely the Bahamas seems to me by far the stronger, more substantial piece of work. The play focuses on an ageing couple, Millicent (Kate Fahy) and Frank (Ian Gelder), as they discuss their beloved son Michael, with their dialogue occasionally interrupted by the appearances of their Dutch student lodger, Marijke (James again, in another excellent turn). What starts out as a comedy of manners and misunderstandings gradually gives way to something far more unsettling, however, for, in Aleks Sierz’s grandiose formulation, this is a play about the ways in which “fascistic attitudes are manifest in everyday life as well as in history.”

Crimp’s production is a tad too self-conscious: the play is staged as the radio drama it originated as, with no props, the actors seated at tables in front of marked-up scripts, and sound equipment visible. It’s hard to see what this conceit contributes beyond a superficial veneer of “baring-the-device” modernism, and it makes the piece feel static. But the conception is transcended, finally, by the strength of the writing and by superbly naturalistic performances. Ambiguities and uncertainties here feel more integrated and meaningful than in Play House, and the play broadens out quite successfully into a critique of an insular world-view that sees violence as perpetrated by those unlike us: the distant, the Other, the foreign.

As the garrulous Millicent, Fahy (last seen on screen as the matriarch in Joanna Hogg’s great Archipelago) delivers a gem of a performance: the character’s Freudian slips and inanities (“Who do we know in a call-box, Frank?”) are deliciously delivered. Gelder partners her wonderfully, their performances achieving a marvellous equilibrium. And James does brilliantly in a long late monologue which offers a new perspective on events, suggesting that, contrary to Millicent’s belief, threat and danger aren’t just something associated with foreign climes, but may in fact be manifest a good deal closer to home.

The double-bill runs until 21st April. Further information at the Orange Tree website.

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