Every Brilliant Thing by Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe, Orange Tree Theatre, 21 October 2017

This brilliant show is so difficult to describe without making it sound awful. Hence the big adjective up front to make it very clear that this is a great show and is highly recommended by both of us.

The reason it sounds awful is because it is riddled with audience participation and childish comedy, yet it is about depression and suicide, so could err towards mawkishness.

But it does none of those things – it is simply an hour of wonderful, entertaining stuff.

Don’t take our word for it – this search term finds you zillions of reviews.

Here is the excellent Orange Tree stub on the production.

Janie and I did not get majorly picked on for audience participation (unlike some), but we did get to read out an item each from the list; “Christopher Walken’s Voice” in Janie’s case and “Christopher Walken’s Hair” (must have been type-casting) in mine.

Janie had to ask me afterwards who Christopher Walken is.

Well done Paul Miller and the Orange Tree crowd for grabbing this one and giving it a go at the Orange Tree – just the right size and shape of venue for this piece.

We went for our usual post-Orange Tree Don Fernando meal feeling thoroughly satisfied and thrilled with our evening’s entertainment.

The March On Russia by David Storey, Orange Tree Theatre, 7 October 2017

Back in the late 1980’s. when I read a heck of a lot of plays as my “commute fodder”, I remember wanting to like David Storey’s plays but never enjoying reading them. I wanted to like them, because I knew his son, Jake, at University, which was as close as I got to actually knowing a playwright back then. But I always found the plays themselves naturalistic to the point of being dull.

But I had never seen a David Storey performed and now he has died and Daisy liked the sound of this one and it is supposedly one of his most autobiographical ones and it was the Orange Tree…

…so off we went.

I’m going to guess that this is about as good a production of a David Storey as one might find. Excellent cast, fine young director in Alice Hamilton, whose work we have enjoyed before. (Although German Skerries,which she also directed, was a naturalistic, dull, late 20th Century play which sent us to sleep.) Plus, the Orange Tree “in the round” treatment suits this type of naturalistic chamber play.

This production of The March On Russia has had excellent reviews – quotes, links and other resources about the production can be found on the Orange Tree’s site – here.

But I did find the play dull. It was borderline for me whether we stayed on for the second half, but Daisy guessed, correctly, that the drama would unfold in a rather more interesting way second half. I’m glad we stayed. I’m glad I’ve seen a David Storey. Neither of us will be rushing back to see another of his, though.

We debated this and more over a delicious Spanish meal at Don Fernando after theatre, as is our habit post Orange Tree, making the evening as a whole worthwhile and enjoyable.

Low Level Panic by Clare Mcintyre, Orange Tree Theatre, 25 March 2017

This made it two in a row theatre visits to see all female affairs, the previous visit being Scarlett at the Hampstead Downstairs – click here – earlier this month.

Unlike Scarlett, though, this production is a revival of a 1980’s play. Indeed, a quintessentially 1980’s play. It’s a three-hander.  All three actresses performed their roles very well.

Here is a link to the excellent Orange Tree on-line resources about the production, including reviews and stuff.

Lots of excellent reviews up there, mostly four stars. Of course, the Orange Tree only puts up the best ones with stars, so I add these only for balance:

Several of the reviews discuss feminism 1988 style and debate the extent to which things have changed since then – very much the conversation Janie and I had over dinner and the next day.

Anyway, Janie and I both really enjoyed our evening at the theatre and our Don Fernando grubsie afterwards.

 

Sheppey by William Somerset Maugham, Orange Tree Theatre, 26 November 2016

I think we booked this because we had booked so little at the Orange Tree of late and because Janie said she’d never seen a Somerset Maugham play. I had to admit that I hadn’t seen one either, although I had read some years ago (and frankly had found them wanting compared with his excellent short stories).

The scenario of this play, Sheppey, Maugham’s last, is straightforward enough. Sheppey is a gentleman’s hairdresser who wins a small fortune in a lottery. The play is set when written, c1933, when the great depression was biting hard for many. Sheppey’s life doesn’t overlap much with the have-nots, but those he does encounter affect him. Sheppey has always thought himself a lucky man despite his relatively modest life; so should his charity begin at home or should he try to spread the benefits of his lucky ticket?

This simple, linear story is well summarised in the play’s Wikipedia entry – SPOILER ALERT – click here. The great Ralph Richardson played the lead in the original production in 1933. I was fortunate enough to see him perform towards the end of his career, in the Double Dealer at the National in 1978, which I shall write up on Ogblog in the fullness of time.

As always, the Orange Tree Theatre has a great resource on the production and play – without spoiler – see here. John Ramm, a fine actor, plays Sheppey in this production.

The play is unduly long, with two intervals, in the 1930s tradition of three lengthy acts. It is hard to cut such plays to one interval numbers, but this play really does labour its way through 2 hours and 50 minutes (including intervals). If Paul Miller needs to persevere with the Orange Tree tradition of early 20th century plays, perhaps he should drop the tradition of “hanging on the playwright’s every word”.

Janie and I lost patience with the piece after two acts, deciding to bail out and take our fabada and solomillos dinner at Don Fernando’s at a more civilised hour.

This is a shame, as Paul Miller deploys his excellent directorial skills on a very talented cast to bring as much life as possible out of this play. He also deftly uses Geff Francis as Sheppey’s boss and Dickie Beau as the prostitute Sheppey tries to help, without ceremony but equally without any indication in the text that the boss might be black and/or that the prostitute might be a man in drag.

Still, this is not a great play, in my view (and in Janie’s). There are reasons why Somerset Maugham’s plays don’t get revived much. They were popular pieces in their day, but tend to seem incredibly dated in style now.

In Sheppey, the characters are a bit one-dimensional and it is pretty easy to see where the story is going. Major plot shifts are foreshadowed so overtly, Somerset Maugham might as well have alerted those shifts with neon signs or tannoy announcements. So when Janie asked me at the restaurant to look up and tell her what happens in the end, there were no surprises for me in the Wikipedia synopsis – above and again – SPOILER ALERT IF YOU – click here.

Of course, the character of Sheppey made me think of my grandfather, who was a gentleman’s hairdresser at the time the play was set and written. I wonder whether Grandpa Lew ever saw the play. My grandmother (who coincidentally, like Sheppey’s wife, had been in service before they married) was dying or recently deceased around that time, so perhaps not.

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Grandpa Lew and Grandma Beatrice

But the play was set in Jermyn Street and performed at the Wyndhams, both within spitting distance of the Piccadilly Hotel where Grandpa Lew worked, so who knows? If he took my eleven-year-old mum with him, I very much doubt if her self-confessed childhood attention deficit hyperactivity disorder would have kept her in her seat for the full three acts.

The Brink by Brad Birch, Orange Tree Theatre, 9 April 2016

Wow. This was great.

Despite our unexpectedly disappointing evening at the Hampstead the day before in the hands of old favourites Neil Labute and Michael Attenborough, we still had high hopes for this play by new playwright Brad Birch and emerging director Mel Hillyard.

Our high hopes were well founded. A young teacher descending into psychotic madness does not sound like an entertaining, even amusing subject. Yet somehow this extraordinary play and production indeed entertained and amused, while also bemusing and shocking us.

The cast were all excellent, with especially strong performances by Ciarán Owens as the unfortunate young teacher, Nick, and Vince Leigh in several roles, as Nick’s headmaster and other tormentors.

Vince Leigh I recognised as soon as he came onto the stage, as a nice fellow I chat with sometimes at the health club. I was delighted and relieved when he and the production turned out to be so good. At dinner afterwards, one of Janie’s first, unprompted and highly-positive comments was about Vince’s performance, at which point I told her about the small but pleasing connection.

We’re big fans of the Orange Tree and think that Paul Miller is doing great things there since taking over eighteen months or so ago. Pomona, for example, was simply superb.  

We attended the last preview – so press night is this Monday. We really hope that The Brink is well received by the critics and does well for the Orange Tree – it deserves to.

Details about The Brink, including the reviews once they have been published, are/will be gathered here on the Orange Tree site.

 

German Skerries by Robert Holman, Orange Tree Theatre, 5 March 2016

The questions Daisy and I debated over our Spanish dinner at Don Fernando after this short play were “why?” questions. Primarily, “why on earth did Paul Miller choose to revive this particular play?”

Yes, the Orange Tree rubric  about this play – click here – says that Simon Stephens reveres Robert Holman. Any friend of Simon Stephens blah blah…

…but this play, which won awards and all sorts in the late 1970s, must have either come from a lean year (1977? – I don’t think so) or simply aged badly, as some plays do. It simply didn’t resonate for either of us.

Some of it felt like writing by numbers to me – the birdwatchers spot a cormorant impaling itself on some stray wire, presumably the wire is there because of the industrial activity out by the skerries. “Oh dear”, I thought, “one of the characters is going to cop an industrial injury before the 80 minutes is up.”

Cormorants on Lake Nicaragua skerries
Cormorants on Lake Nicaragua skerries

It didn’t help that I have a slight cold (or do I mean man flu?) on our recent return from Nicaragua – from 30 Centigrade to 30 Fahrenheit overnight is a bit of a shock to the system. I did a pretty good job of stifling the sniffling and coughing, despite the cast members smoking pretty constantly and the smoke machine designed to make the night scenes seem misty being located right by my seat! Thank goodness for the trusty bottle of water when you need it most.

We had other why questions; such as why did the young man stay up by the bird watching hut leaving his young wife to take the injured man to hospital alone? There was a bicycle in the hut which seemed to have been left there for a purpose (perhaps that purpose) but the bike was ignored when crisis struck. Perhaps a change of heart from the writer, left hanging like…

The subject matter had the ability to resonate – ordinary folk in Teeside, caught up in the late 1970s industrial changes and disquiet…but by gosh this is a slow and dull piece. The play had only the faintest echo of the power possible in similar small northern town microscope pieces, such as Stockport by Simon Stephens. Yes, I can see where the influence on Stephens might have come; yes I understand that the industries that were controversially established on Teeside in the 1970s are controversially shutting down now. But 40 years on, leave it to Stephens…or revive a Stephens, don’t try and revive this dated and clumsy piece.

Michael Billington and his good lady were in the house tonight sitting opposite us. Billington is a great supporter of the Orange Tree but I suspect he’ll struggle to give this piece a favourable review – it will be interesting to see what he writes about it.

Daisy struggled to stay awake and was fearful that she might have nodded off while the young man character was bird watching in our direction through his binoculars. I don’t think she nodded off at those particular junctures, nor do I think that Michael Billington nodded off at the times when the binos were pointing his way, although I cannot vouch for the wakefulness of Billington’s whole evening.

We too are long-term supporters of the Orange Tree and think that Paul Miller’s tenure so far has had more rock than a massive outcrop of skerries, but this play missed the mark for us by a long way. We know that financial pressure is a major factor, so these joint productions are doubtless the way. Perhaps this piece will work better in Northern towns (although frankly I doubt it).  But in any case, I’d prefer to see more risk in joint productions – better the odd miss that has given a young writer or an emerging theatre troupe a chance, than a revival miss that leaves us simply asking, “why?”.

The Rolling Stone by Chris Urch, Orange Tree Theatre, 16 January 2016

We seem fated to sit next to the luvvies this year. Last week Daisy ended up with Benedict Wong sitting next to her at The Royal Court. Then earlier this week, she took a call from the Orange Tree , to see if we minded shifting up one seat on our row to make space for an actors’ seat. I’m not sure what would have happened if we had refused this request. Anyway, I ended up with half the cast sitting next to me at one time or another (not all at the same time).

Don’t let the jovial start to this posting deceive you. This was another bleak piece about troubled people in a troubled place. This time the place is Uganda and the story is basically that of a young man who gets himself and his religious family caught up in the persecution of gay people. At no point in the play would you sensibly anticipate a happy ending.

The play has won awards and is another of Paul Miller’s canny transfers from Royal Exchange Manchester, where it was deservedly very well received – see synopsis, reviews from Manchester (presumably, eventually, also from Richmond – we attended the last Oraneg Tree Preview), cast and creative credits here.

This is only Chris Urch’s second play, so his is certainly a name to look out for in future.

The title, The Rolling Stone, refers to a newspaper in Uganda that acts as a focal point for persecution by naming and shaming homosexuals.  You’d need a heart of stone not to be moved by this production and the real life plight of gay people in Uganda (and indeed many parts of the world), which this play puts under the spotlight.

When We Were Women by Sharman MacDonald, Orange Tree Theatre, 5 September 2015

I had been really looking forward to this one. I recalled seeing and liking the companion piece, When I Was A Girl I Used To Scream And Shout, many years ago.

Sadly,  this one was rather grim and dark by comparison. Well acted, well directed, but neither Janie nor I much liked the play.

Here is a link to the Orange Tree’s stub for the production, which was reasonably well received – the stub includes some good quotes from the reviews.

As usual, we didn’t feel we’d wasted our time and enjoyed our evening out, not least our Don Fernando dinner which we almost always enjoy as an occasional treat after the Orange Tree.

 

buckets by Adam Barnard, Orange Tree Theatre, 30 May 2015

An interesting short play, this one, lots of tiny vignettes not really connected other than a general theme around bucket lists.

The title actually is “buckets” with a small “b”. Not sure if that is significant or just modern “mess with capitalisation” stuff.

There’s real “what was that all about” weirdness about this play – I’m pretty sure Janie said that as we left – but still we enjoyed some of the scenes and performances. We had plenty to talk about afterwards.

It reminded me, actually, of the sort of experimental stuff Sam Walters used to do above the pub back in the “original Orange Tree” days.

Excellent on-line resource with all the details, in the modern Orange Tree way – click here. Lots of review quotes in there but tellingly the one from the Guardian is excluded. In his gentle, pro-Orange Tree style I think Michael Billington sums it up very well – click here.

Yes, we went for Spanish food at Don Fernando afterwards, That’s normally what we do.

 

Each His Own Wilderness by Doris Lessing, Orange Tree Theatre, 18 April 2015

This one didn’t really do the business for us.

We found the bohemian older generation a bit too bohemian and the surprisingly conservative younger generation irritatingly conservative.

Perhaps it all meant more in the late 1950s, but it certainly didn’t pack a punch in the way that its contemporaries (Wesker, Delaney, Osborne and the like) did.

Good cast, well directed…here’s a link to the Orange Tree resource on the play/production…including some review quotes indicating that some reviewers really liked it…

…but others didn’t:

You get the idea. I think we might have escaped early and cut our losses at half time on this one. Janie might remember for sure but I have no recollection at all about the ending and do recall not caring.

Spanish food at Don Fernando rounded off the evening nicely nonetheless.