“If it is a choice between Richmond and death, I chose death,” sulked Nicole Kidman’s Virginia Woolf (c/o David Hare) in one of The Hours’s worst camp moments. Titled in reference to the Walter Scott quotation that deemed Richmond “an unrivalled landscape” and drawn from material produced by the theatre’s Writers Group, the six short plays that constitute this year’s Orange Tree Directors Showcase seek to construct a more complex portrait of the leafy Greater London ‘burb (hometown to yours truly) than Hare and co provided. Just as Jimmy Grimes’s And Then The Snow Came explored the plight of Richmond’s homeless in the 2011 Directors Showcase, OT writers have again been encouraged to take the theatre’s hometown itself as Muse, creating work that unfolds in Richmond and its environs, with the development of the pieces overseen by this year’s pair of resident trainee directors, Alexander Lass and Nadia Papachronopoulou.
It’s an interesting premise, to be sure, but one that doesn’t consistently pay the dividends it could. The bar having been set high by last year’s wonderfully confounding Showcase (which progressed, brilliantly, from a quaint Edwardian proto-Home Alone escapade to a fierce take on Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman via a spot of disturbing Haneke-esque home invasion) Unrivalled Landscape ends up feeling more uneven by comparison, despite the intimately collaborative nature of its genesis. Still, the evening offers some striking moments and strong performances, and rewards the patient viewer with a radiant finale.
While the pieces are tonally and formally diverse (encompassing the comic and the melancholy, monologues and duologues, the naturalistic and the surreal) Lass, Papachronopoulou and the writers have striven to make them interconnected affairs; the dramas are based around the trajectories of five individuals, characters who might be mere bit-players in one play and then become protagonists in the next. The evening opens by sounding its most eerily enigmatic note in Laura Muth’s intriguing but too-brief “Killing Time”, which finds a suicidal man, Andy (John Bowler), conversing with a “tourist” (Sarah Malin) during a night-time deer cull in “the purgatory of Richmond Park.” It’s an apt curtain-raiser for a sequence of plays that mostly focus upon characters who feel hunted or haunted to some degree.
However, the connections between the pieces seem less intricately worked out that they might have been, with a couple of characters feeling crowbarred into their scenarios, and, more disappointingly, the significance of the Richmond locales isn’t always maximised. Andy’s story, for example, is later elaborated in Ernest Hall’s “Goodbye From Me” a monologue-as-meltdown that finds the character delivering a torturously inept stand-up comedy routine the day before his prison release, resulting in a confession of tragedy that’s supplemented by a ghostly apparition. But where “Killing Time” is too brief, “Goodbye From Me” (which doesn’t even take place in Richmond in any case) feels over-lengthy and despite a thoroughly committed performance from Bowler is neither funny nor touching enough to sustain itself or the portrait of the crying-on-the-outside comedian that it presents.
Archie Maddocks’s more accomplished “Kizzy and the Prince” builds on the promise of the playwright’s excellent riots-inspired Mottled Lines with a piece that presents a Kew Gardens-set encounter between a spiky Trinadadian security guard, Kizzy (Nicola Alexis), and – yup – a Bahraini prince, Faris (Ash Hunter). If the scenario sounds more than a mite contrived, Maddocks’s punchy, poetic writing transcends it, as do Alexis and Hunter’s fine performances which spark Papachronopoulou’s carefully modulated production. It’s a pity, therefore, that Kizzy and Faris’s narrative is picked up less compellingly in Benedict Fogarty’s “Ties” – which focuses on a hospital row between the pair that boasts over-explicit dialogue (“My family is part of a tyrannous regime!” announces Faris) and one of the stage’s least convincing pregnant bellies, as it demonstrates the myriad complications involved in hooking up with a Prince.
The central thematic of “ties” – to one’s past, to other human beings, to previous identities – receives a more vibrant spin in Will Gore’s “Portman Avenue” which takes its inspiration from an extraordinary real event: the fall of an African stowaway from an aeroplane flying over East Sheen. Said incident is here witnessed by Kizzy who, being courted at this stage by Faris, receives a visit from a pissed-off reporter, Kate (Malin), who’s keen to quiz her on what she’s seen. The most ambitiously structured of the pieces in its (often effective) recourse to overlapping scenes, Gore’s play ultimately struggles to bring all the characters together convincingly, but it has great touches and boasts an absolutely terrific turn from Alexis, here trading the swaggering confidence of her first appearance for fear and vulnerability as Kizzy’s painful memories resurface.
Last up is Caitlin Shannon’s super “The Getaway” which brings the evening full circle by transforming the “purgatory” of Richmond Park into a Paradise of sorts. The jewel of the evening, Shannon’s play is simply lovely: a warm, funny, fluid piece that charts the interaction of Kate with Gary (Kieron Jecchinis), the ex-cop Park warden who’s supervising her volunteering work. Oscillating between bolshiness and tenderness, the pair – he a Western-movie enthusiast and stickler for Park rules given to California dreaming, she a divorcee seeking solace in Nature and scornful of Hollywood myths – finally share a moment of drunken connection under the stars, an encounter that incidentally features the best bit of stage iPhone abuse since Anna Calder Marshall memorably boiled a mobile in Salt, Root and Roe.
“The Getaway” can’t bring the disparate, sometimes straggly strands of the other plays together. But this text, deeply concerned with redemption, redeems the evening, offering its most insightful discourse on identity and the possibility of change. Indeed, Shannon’s play, wittily scored and beautifully performed by Malin and Jecchinis, does what you hoped all these plays would do. It wrests something at once local and universal, profound and mundane, from its Richmond setting, leaving the viewer with a renewed sense of the potential for interest, beauty and connection in a town that - as is certainly the case for this writer - they may feel they know all too well.
Running until July 13.