Poison by Lot Vekemans, Orange Tree Theatre, 18 November 2017

When we booked it, we really liked the sound of this modern Dutch two-hander about loss and relationships.

Poison has been very well received and reviewed, both in its original award-winning Dutch form and in this translation at The Orange Tree.

Excellent cast – it seemed like only a few weeks ago that we’d seen Zumin Varma in the round in West London – directed by the ever-reliable Paul Miller.

Yet for some reason this piece simply did not press our buttons. Perhaps Janie and I had seen this subject matter covered with more power elsewhere. Perhaps the characters came across as rather stiff and cold to us, rather than the bottled-up emotion that (I suspect) was supposed to be portrayed.

It is a short piece and is (as more or less always at the Orange Tree) thoughtfully designed and produced in the round. So don’t necessarily take our word for it.

Here is a link to the Orange Tree resource on this play/production.

Here is a search term that will find you reviews and stuff.

Did we go to Don Fernando to chow down afterwards? You can bet your sweet fabada we did.

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.

8494447550_34fa52ae2c_z
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.

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.

 

Baby Girl by Roy Williams, DNA by Dennis Kelly and The Miracle by Lin Coghlan, Cottesloe Theatre, 23 February 2008

A mixed bag evening, mostly good stuff in the mix, with three short plays all with a “yoof” theme, at the Cottesloe.

We weren’t going to miss this one. Roy Williams we liked a lot when we first came across him at the Royal Court a few years before. Ditto Dennis Kelly, whose work we’d very much enjoyed at the Hampstead. Lin Coghlan was new to us.

We weren’t overly familiar with Paul Miller’s name as director then, although we had seen his work before and now (writing in 2016) know his work well at the Orange Tree.

Apparently this production emerged from the National Theatre’s Connections programme, getting young people involved in performing, although this production was picked up by and delivered by professionals, albeit some of them very young professionals.

There is an excellent, free RNT education workpack for these plays, which includes synopses and other educational materials to accompany the pieces – click here to download.

LondonTheatre.co.uk provides a useful cast & crew list and a short synopsis of each play.

Interesting reviews:

I think we liked the first two plays a fair bit more than the last, but two out of three really ain’t bad for this sort of evening, so we were thoroughly satisfied.

The Enchantment by Victoria Benedictsson, Cottesloe Theatre, 11 August 2007

My recollection of this one is extremely limited. We saw this on the Saturday evening between my father’s death and the funeral. The programme helps my memory, as does Janie’s recall (also dredged with the help of the programme) and the reviews.

Victoria Benedictsson was a Swedish writer who had a difficult time as a modern woman in the early days of women’s liberation. She killed herself relatively young, but not before writing this loosely autobiographical play in the late 1880s. The play is now seen as a precursor to Scandinavian works such as Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and A Doll’s House.

I note from the programme that Nancy Carroll played the lead; I subsequently discovered that she is an Alleyn’s alum; good for her. She is an excellent actress. I also spotted in the programme that Paul Miller (now taking the Orange Tree Richmond from strength to strength) directed this production. In the round too; good training for the Orange Tree.

It was clearly one of those slow build, late 19th century dramas. Probably just as well given my/our state of mind that weekend; a frantic, high octane play such as Cyprus Avenue – the piece we saw the other night as I write – would not have gone down well in the circumstances.

Clare Bayley, who wrote the version of the play which was performed in this production, has a good page on this project, including interviews and stuff, on her site – here.  She also includes some good quotes from the critics in her piece.

Indeed, it seems to have gone down well enough with the critics that matter:

Elling by Simon Bent, Bush Theatre, 4 May 2007

This was special.  We liked the sound of it.  We hadn’t heard of anyone to do with it.  As it happens, John Simm was well known, but for TV and therefore not to us.

Paul Miller has gone on to be the head honcho at the Orange Tree Theatre, where he is working wonders now (as I write in the mid teenies).

This is a great play and was a great production – click here for Bush archive.

The Stage loved it – click here.

Guardian loved it – click here.

Observer loved  it – click here.

We loved it.