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Following on from their performance of Inside, which looked at stories exploring the turmoil of isolation; Orange Tree Theatre’s Outside is a collection of new writing brimming with whispers of a phantom year, and the feeling of otherness which has been a frontline struggle throughout it.
A clear change from the compact style of its predecessor, the set now lies open in a more rustic, rural fashion by designer Camilla Clarke. Plants adorn every nook and cranny, bringing an expansive feel to the minimal space, lifting the eye upward with stacked staging and hanging shelves – and as the plays unfold, this freedom is also clear in their performances as the actors move more dynamically within the set. There is a symbolism of being able to roam that is so present given the lifting of lockdown restrictions this week.
The first play, Two Billion Beats by Sonali Bhattacharyya, is a cleverly written short about two schoolgirls who are being held back by those around them: teachers, family, other students. In each other, they unknowingly seek a way forward. Bhattacharyya flips a light switch on the fourth wall with reckless abandon, bringing a comical but mesmerising insight into the minds of these girls, showing us the quick wit and intelligence that they use to survive (exemplary in Zainab Hasan’s buzzing performance). The pang of prejudice, like a seed growing through the text, spurs the play to a surprisingly hopeful and enduring conclusion.
Following on is Prodigal, a play about a son returning home after his mother’s death, to find his sister less than happy to see him. Written by Kalungi Ssebandeke and staring Fiston Barek and Robinah Kironde, this play exposes a very interesting family dynamic, one of a large, split home, filled with segregation and finger-pointing. The play adds an interesting dimension to the theme of Outside by placing a very private conversation into a very public space, magnifying the exposure that we have been so gleefully avoiding during lockdown. Whilst I find Ssebandeke to be quite heavy-handed with the exposition, I find his exploration of outsiders incredibly interesting – united in family but divided by circumstance.
Finishing off the show is a dexterous performance by Temi Wilkey, as she navigates the beautiful workings of Zoe Cooper’s The Kiss. Trapped in her own daily routine, life in a new neighbourhood during lockdown has its pitfalls for Lou, as her girlfriend still heads off to work as a teacher. Lou reflects on moments throughout her year, the rapid-fire monologue structured and delivered in a pseudo-naturalistic manner making the text feel both relatable and heightened at the same time, and ultimately changing our perception and hers.
These three new plays didn’t quite hit home with the same impact of Inside’s collection, feeling coarser in director Georgia Green’s approach and exploring less deeply the emotional impact that these characters endure. On the other hand, they do paint a very vivid picture, full of hope for the journey ahead and how we can learn from the year gone by. As the OT and other theatres around the country begin to step out of the shadow of COVID, this hope is much needed and is something that we are all dearly clinging too.
Outside is now streaming online until Saturday 17 April. For more information and to book tickets, visit Orange Tree Theatre online.