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Posts Tagged ‘Orange Tree Theatre’

Playwright Lucy Prebble has given us some excellent plays, most notably ENRON, her second, but isn’t very prolific – she’s only written three plays in the 16 years since this debut, but then again she’s also successful in TV, notably with HBO’s current hit Succession. Her fourth play, A Very Expensive Poison, premiered just four months ago and her third, The Effect, will be revived at the Boulevard Theatre in March, so we’re having a bit of a Prebble Fest. I missed this one first time round, so I was delighted the Orange Tree have revived it.

The play revolves around 17-year-old Dani who lives with her somewhat neurotic mother. Dani’s father works away and plays away too, something they are both fully aware of. She suffers with an eating disorder and has recently returned from a residential clinic which she resents being forced to go to. She frequents internet chat rooms, where she meets two very different people – lonely 22-year-old Lewis, seeking a relationship, and thirty-something paedophile Tim, looking for boys. She meets up with Lewis, and they strike up some sort of relationship. By posing as an 11-year-old boy, she also meets up with Tim and they strike up an even odder relationship, where she becomes a friend and confidante. The two worlds collide when Lewis visits Tim and then her home, and her relationship with her mother is exorcised.

These very sensitive issues are handled really well, in the writing, staging and performances. All of the characters are treated sympathetically, even Tim, delicately played by John Hollingworth. Ali Barouti navigates Lewis’ journey from desperation to obsession beautifully. Alexandra Gilbreath handles the complexity of mother Jan with great skill. Jessica Rhodes’ performance as the very mercurial Dani, onstage virtually throughout, is superb, even more impressive when you realise it’s her professional debut.

Oscar Toeman’s excellent revival benefits from the intimacy of this theatre, but the sunken playing area brings sightline issues, as it did with Pamona at the same venue. This was my only gripe with what was otherwise a thoroughly satisfying evening of theatre.

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One of the most positive things about 2019 was that more new plays and new musicals made my shortlist than revivals of either; new work appears to be thriving, theatre is alive.

BEST NEW PLAY

I struggled to chose one, so I’ve chosen four!

Laura Wade’s pirandellian The Watsons* at the Menier, clever and hilarious, The Doctor* at the Almeida, a tense and thrilling debate about medical ethics, How Not to Drown at the Traverse in Edinburgh, the deeply moving personal experience of one refugee and Jellyfish at the NT Dorfman, a funny and heart-warming love story, against all odds

There were another fifteen I could have chosen, including Downstate, Faith Hope & Charity and Secret River at the NT, The End of History and A Kind of People* at the Royal Court, The Son and Snowflake* at the Kiln, The Hunt at the Almeida, A German Life at the Bridge, After Edward at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Appropriate at the Donmar, A Very Peculiar Poison at the Old Vic and Shook at Southwark Playhouse. Our Lady of Kibeho at Stratford East was a candidate, though I saw it in Northampton. My other out of town contender was The Patient Gloria at the Traverse in Edinburgh. I started the year seeing Sweat at the Donmar, but I sneaked that into the 2018 list!

BEST REVIVAL

Death of a Salesman* at the Young Vic.

This was a decisive win, though my shortlist also included All My Sons and Present Laughter at the Old Vic, Master Harold & the Boys and Rutherford & Son at the NT Lyttleton, the promenade A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bridge, Noises Off* at the Lyric Hammersmith and Little Baby Jesus at the Orange Tree.

BEST NEW MUSICAL

Shared between Come From Away* in the West End and Amelie* at the Watermill in Newbury, now at The Other Palace, with Dear Evan Hansen*, This Is My Family at the Minerva in Chichester and one-woman show Honest Amy* at the Pleasance in Edinburgh very close indeed.

Honourable mentions to & Juliet* in the West End, Ghost Quartet* at the new Boulevard, The Bridges of Madison County at the Menier, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Fiver at Southwark Playhouse, Operation Mincemeat* at The New Diorama and The Season in Northampton.

BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL

Another that has to be shared, between the Menier’s The Boy Friend* and The Mill at Sonning’s Singin’ in the Rain*

I also enjoyed Sweet Charity* at the Donmar, Blues in the Night at the Kiln, Falsettos at the Other Palace and The Hired Man at the Queens Hornchurch, and out-of-town visits to Assassins and Kiss Me Kate at the Watermill Newbury and Oklahoma in Chichester.

A vintage year, I’d say. It’s worth recording that 60% of my shortlist originated in subsidised theatres, underlining the importance of public funding of quality theatre. 20% took me out of London to places like Chichester, Newbury and Northampton, a vital part of the UK’s theatrical scene. Only two of these 48 shows originated in the West End, and they both came from Broadway. The regions, the fringe and arts funding are all crucial to making and maintaining the UK as the global leader it is.

The starred shows are either still running or transferring, so they can still be seen, though some close this week.

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Arinze Kene’s play Misty was one of my favourite evenings last year, which made me keen to see this revival of an earlier play, in the unlikely venue of the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond. I will try and control my superlativeitis!

It consists of three interwoven monologues by black teenage school-kids on the brink of adulthood, but what makes it so much more is that their individual stories are animated by movement, audience contact and the other actors characterising people in the stories as they prowl around the small round platform. You sometimes have to work to understand all of the uber-realistic street dialogue, but it is very poetic as it crackles and sparkles.

The unpredictable very physical movement by DK Fashola is so integral to the piece, which is brilliantly staged by JMK Award Winner Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu. The depth of characterisation is extraordinary; you get to know, understand and empathise with these three souls, even if they are poles apart from your own life experiences. The three actors, of course, contribute much to this; Ayebe Godwin, Rachel Nwokoro and Khai Shaw are all absolutely superb.

It’s rare that writing, staging and performances all come together to creat something so special. Though it probably doesn’t belong at the Orange Tree, their rousing reception made it all the more of a joy. Two more weeks. Be there.

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The resurgence of interest in Terence Rattigan’s plays seems to have focused more on the intense dramas, like The Deep Blue Sea. The Orange Tree Theatre now gives us the second of the rarer comedies, following French Without Tears four years ago. I thought that earlier play hadn’t aged well, but this one comes up sparkling and fresh.

It’s set in the London home of The Earl of Harpenden, a man without a family who’s about to marry the daughter of The Duke of Ayr & Stirling. The Earl likes a good time and befriends an American Lieutenant at one of his drinking sessions and invites him to stay. His partying friend Mabel, a bit of a vamp, also turns up. His fiancee Elizabeth visits with someone she’s befriended, a French Lieutenant. Both fall for Elizabeth, which sends the play along a sophisticated, hysterical, delightful path to its happy conclusion.

The Orange Tree is the perfect space to give the comedy intimacy and pace. All you need is a few bits of furniture, and in this case a superb ceiling feature, to create this bachelor apartment; well, Horton the butler as well, obviously. All seven performances in Paul Miller’s pitch perfect production shine. Notwithstanding the period it’s still set in, this seventy-six-year-old play feels so fresh. What must have been a tonic in war-time London, proves to be a tonic still.

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Playwright Martin Crimp is back at the Orange Tree Theatre, which nurtured him and staged his first six plays before he became a Royal Court blue-eyed boy and went on to write prolifically – original plays, translations / adaptations and, more recently, opera librettos – and become our most ‘European’ of playwrights. This was the sixth of those early plays, a 1988 satire on middle class morals and patronising male behaviour.

Mike and Liz are selling their London home and Clair is their estate agent. They make a big deal about how they want to act honourably, but everything that follows contradicts this, including how they sanction gazumping, how they treat the Italian nanny and how they inadvertently expose Clair to much worse. It all takes place inside Fly Davis’ elevated gauze square, which becomes both Mike & Liz’s living room, Clair’s flat and finally Mike & Liz’s garden.

Surprisingly, and depressingly, the behaviours on show are as current as they were thirty years ago, but it didn’t have enough bite for me, a bit light in narrative and characterisation and, though well performed, Richard Twyman’s production didn’t have enough pace. I’m afraid it felt like a long 100 minutes.

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This was one of the first plays I saw at the Traverse Theatre, and indeed at the Edinburgh Fringe, 33 years ago, which began a lifelong love of both, leading to ten shows at the new Traverse just last month. It was part of a golden age for Scottish drama, led by the Traverse, which went on to mount three more Jo Clifford plays before moving on to the next generation. It hasn’t been revived there since and I’m not sure it’s ever been seen in London before.

It’s set in the early 17th century, when Spain was an aspirational expansionist power with particular designs on the states which would one day become Italy. The newly married Duke of Osuna, not really enamoured with his new wife and seemingly impotent, avoids the honeymoon by heading to Venice on behalf of King and country to make Spain great again, with his poet Quevedo and servant Pablo, whose partner Maria stays at court in Madrid with the Duchess. On the way they encounter pirates and when they get there, it’s all a bit weird, with little to say and not really going anywhere.

I’m not sure Jess Curtis’ hybrid period / contemporary design helps Paul Miller’s production, but the actors work hard to breathe life into it, notably the four central performances by Tim Delap as the Duke, Christopher Logan as poet Quevedo, Eleanor Fanyinka as Maria and an excellent professional debut from Remus Brooks as Pablo. I can see why they thought the time was right to revive it, and indeed I was very much looking forward to seeing it again, but time hasn’t been kind and I’m afraid it comes over as dull and a bit pointless today.

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The West End premiere of this show in 1988 must be one of the shortest runs ever – just over a month – though it did well in Manchester en route to London. The Broadway premiere four years earlier ran longer, but wasn’t a great success, despite the casting of Chita Riviera and Liza Minnelli as mother and daughter Anna and Angel. It fared better in the UK ten years later, in productions in Leicester (Paul Kerryson reviving his 1988 production) and at the Orange Tree in Richmond. Watching this wondrous revival a whole twenty years later, I just can’t fathom why it wasn’t a huge hit. Now it seems as good as any other Kander & Ebb show, and that includes Cabaret and Chicago.

Anna has sold her boardwalk roller-skating rink and the demolition men arrive as she is sorting through her stuff and packing up. Her estranged daughter Angel arrives unexpectedly, horrified at what her mother has done, particularly as she is the co-owner. In a series of expertly crafted and expertly executed flashbacks, we see their relationship unfold from Angel’s birth to that moment. There’s a superb male chorus of six (delightfully named Dino, Lino, Lucky, Benny, Lenny and Tony!) from which other characters step out, including an excellent Stewart Clarke as Angel’s dad Dino, Ross Dawes as her grandfather Lino and Ben Redfern as Anna’s childhood sweetheart Lenny. It’s extraordinary how much story they pack into 120 minutes, interspersed with songs. Terrence McNally’s book is very funny and Kander & Ebb’s music and lyrics are way better than the production history would have you believe, with song after song getting roars of approval from the full house.

It’s great to have Caroline O’Connor back on these shores, beloved of musical theatre fans on three continents. I’d almost forgotten how good she is, in all departments – song, dance, comedy and acting – and here she’s paired with one of the best of the next generation, the hugely talented Gemma Sutton – two star performances indeed. I love the fact that O’Conner has gone from being Dianne Langton’s understudy for Angel in the UK premiere to co-lead as Anna here. Bec Chippendale’s design is an evocative and atmospheric fading structure, poignantly littered with some of her recently deceased dad’s stuff, and there’s a brilliant light feature which somehow brings even more intimacy. Adam Lenson’s staging and Fabian Aloise’s choreography are superb, making great use of the small space; it seemed to go from showstopper to showstopper without pausing for breath, the audience erupting at the end.

A revival this good can’t be seen only once, so as soon as I got home I booked to go back. A hugely underrated show which last night felt like a masterpiece uncovered.

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