No matter what the production, I always find a trip to the Orange Tree Theatre a treat, as its intimate in-the-round setting brings you so close to the action that it is almost like watching a life size television set. It’s a welcome relief from the view-from-the-hills seats you can sometimes pay £20 a pop for at larger London venues. However, in the Orange Tree’s case, size is certainly not an indication of power, and this small but mighty theatre is a real London gem, putting on a variety of interesting and powerful plays throughout the season, which has led it to rightly be called the “pocket National Theatre”.
This year’s Director’s Showcase, which aims to give new directors a chance to showcase their talents, is advertised as a double bill, but is really a triple. The first half consists of St. John Hankin’s Victorian comedy The Burglar Who Failed, which is followed by a response to the piece in the form of Return to Sender, a play written by a member of the Orange Tree writers’ group, Omar El-Khairy. Both plays are directed by Karima Setohy. The last half is taken up by a performance of black-power writer Amiri Baraka’s powerful play Dutchman, which explores American race-relations in the 1960s, directed by Polina Kalinina
The Burglar Who Failed is the evening’s most accessible play; a simple and charming comedy showing an evening in the bedroom of a feisty young girl at the turn of the twentieth century, who discovers a burglar under her bed. Whilst defending herself with a hockey stick and, later, the rather clumsy burglar’s revolver, the confident young Dolly (played by a lovable Jessica Clark) ends up befriending the would-be-burglar and convincing him to give up his ‘profession’ to turn to a more amiable vocation. Witty and sweet, the play works well as an easy crowd-pleaser on its own, but its deeper subtleties are only truly realised when compared with its successor, Return to Sender.
Set in another girl’s bedroom but in the modern day, Return to Sender reverses the power struggle of The Burglar Who Failed. Instead of a middle class youngster overpowering and ultimately helping a struggling working class man, this time, a presumably lower-class resentful teenager (again played by Clark) inexplicably ties up a middle-aged, middle-class couple in their own home.
It is this paralleling device which flags up the truly patronising nature of the first piece and begs the question of who should have the control in our society. At first sight, the earlier piece of course seems the most humane and moral – the story of a privileged young girl helping a poor older man to get on his way in the world without the need to turn to crime should be, and is, an uplifting and heart-warming tale, but this joyfulness is offset by the bitter aftertaste of the idea that working class members of society can only be brought out the depths of their impoverished despair by their patronising, higher classed superiors, rather than by their own resources. This is certainly an uncomfortable thought for the largely older, middle-class audience members of the Richmond theatre, but what makes the revelation of The Burglar Who Failed’s dark underbelly even more distressing is the fact that it is only made clear after the presentation of the second play. Whilst in some ways, the play’s attempt at a social moral message is to be commended for its subtlety, this elusiveness also highlights the ignorance and oblivious nature of the modern theatre-goer, or at the very least, this modern theatre-goer (i.e. me). Whilst this is certainly an uncomfortable thought, it is also a highly welcome one, and offered the necessary food for thought of a meaningful theatrical experience.
Unfortunately, although Return to Sender offered up some interesting questions when compared with its partner, the actual script lacked depth. The loud-mouthed and violent teenager at the centre of the piece was painted as a sort of Clockwork Orange character – she went around breaking into the houses of the middle class and, in this situation, tying up their occupants, and all the while quoting Latin phrases and blubbing about her love of opera and Brahms. This archetype of the intelligent psychopath seemed all too familiar and clichéd, and any moments of real tension which left the audience gripped and wanting to know more were undercut by the piece’s slightly lame conclusion, in which no explanation was offered for the bizarre situation, and ultimately left the piece feeling rather flat.
The setting for Baraka’s Dutchman is a 1960’s American subway, and the small stage was transformed through a clever set of graffiti-ridden seating and hanging ropes to create a rather dingy atmosphere. The play revolves around two young Americans who spot each other on the train and begin a conversation; one is Lula, a ridiculously flirtatious and unpredictable young white woman, and the other is Clay, a young, black businessman who is flattered by the enticing Lula’s heavy advances.
The play begins as simply two young, sex-driven individuals trying to suss each other out, with Lula proving particularly adept at manipulating Clay and toying with his emotions. However as she moves on to more racially driven teasing, the once slightly timid Clay begins to get angry, and after a particularly stereotypical portrait of 60’s black culture from the erratic Lula, Clay overpowers her and begins a lengthy monologue about how black people really feel, and concludes that black people would never have to feel so resentful towards whites or even have to write Blues music, if every black person just killed a few white people. Unfortunately, whilst the content seemed significant and interesting, I found this monologue far too lengthy for my liking, and this is where, for me, the play started to lose its focus. Luckily, a dramatic ending brought the play finally to a head and ultimately managed to save the production, and Dutchman proved a captivating ending to an altogether thought-provoking and enjoyable evening.
Director’s Showcase: The Burglar Who Failed and Dutchman is playing in the Orange Tree Theatre until Saturday 30 June. For more information see the Orange Tree Theatre’s website.