Having never been to The Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond and hearing nothing but good things about it, I was quite excited to have the pleasure of going to this magical and mysterious place, right on the outskirts of London.
As part of their 40th birthday celebrations, the night comprised of three performances – “The Burglar Who Failed”, “Return to Sender” and “Dutchman” – a Dircetor’s Showcase and a myriad of mixed emotions.
I’m sure anyone who’s been to The Orange Tree Theatre will agree when I say it is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful and unusual little theatres I’ve ever seen. Not often these days are institutions daring enough to try ‘theatre in the round’ (I guess it’s just not fashionable anymore) but this one is and, whilst my gut reaction told me I should be worried and my teeth automatically clenched every time I saw an audience member pause whilst crossing the stage to excitedly fondle the set, it gave the evening an intimacy and playfulness I haven’t felt since watching educational Shakespeare productions at school.
Then came the performances. The opening piece – “The Burglar” by Hankin – was an interesting comment on early 20th century social and political unrest. It was ‘Old Theatre’, written specifically for a turn-of-the-century theatre audience – white, middle and upper class, British adults – looking to ‘understand’ the lower and lesser classes without having to interact with such creatures. And the cast? They did the best they could with an outdated, elitist script. As all ’Old Theatre’, it was melodramatic and awkward at the best of times. Although, once it had finally finished and the second performance began, I instantly saw why they used it. And this is where it got interesting…
Then followed “Return to Sender”, a performance written by a new Playwright on the theatre’s Young Writer’s Programme, and billed as a direct response to Hankin’s play. Unfortunately, the fact that such a lovely and unusual theatre would so strongly support new writing was more impressive and exciting than the play itself. Don’t get me wrong, it had some engaging moments within it; dealing unapologetically with the issues of violence, burglary and unsocial behaviour caused by the London Riots of 2011. A very bold piece of writing by a writer who, given time, will quite obviously find their unique voice but is still conducting the search. A lot of the dialogue I felt was clunky, and I couldn’t count on both hands the number of times I heard the sentence: “Why are you doing this?” which wore thin very quickly and I felt was something the writer should have asked themselves privately, rather than in conversation with the characters.
Given the dialogue and subject matter, the acting was also of better quality than in the first performance of the evening. Choosing to use the same cast for both “The Burglar” and”Return to Sender” was a smart move on the Director’s part. Giving the audience a visual connection between both, if the dialogue wasn’t enough already. And, it must be noted, the actors’ energy and enthusiasm for both performances was admirable.
Personally, I found the evening’s success fell almost solely on the final performance – “Dutchman” by Amiri Barracka – a play I feel ashamed to say I hadn’t heard of beforehand. Written in the 1960′s and yet still beautifully relevant to audiences today, “Dutchman” explored race, gender and social politics in the most accessible and yet passionate, direct way I’ve seen in a long time. It was poetic, it was exciting and it was, most definitely, an attack on the senses in every way.
A white woman. A black man. The Subway. A lot of apples. A dangerously close-to-the-bone message that race, class and consequent social/cultural background don’t matter.
Apart from a slightly alienating and bizzare few minutes of choreography, the performance was outstanding. The writing, the acting, the direction almost flawless. And the ending made even the staff, who’d probably seen this rehearsed a thousand times, gasp a sincerely desperate gasp of fear and sadness. This, I believe, to be the sign of an unforgettable play – atmosphere.
It’s fair to say, after experiencing the Director’s Showcase, The Orange Tree Theatre will soon begin to play rival to my favourite theatre in London. It’s staff, it’s space, it’s Young Writer’s Programme all fantastic quality and the performances themselves – whilst lacking in areas - are well worth a look-in for a generally enjoyable evening. I do hope I’m invited back!
Performed at the Orange Tree Theatre until the 30th June.