by Torben Betts.

Orange Tree Theatre 1 Clarence Street TW9 2SA To 10 March 2012.
Mon-Sat 7.45pm Mat Sat 3pm & 16, 23 Feb, 1 March 2.30pm (+ post-show discussion).
Audio-described 21 Feb, 25 Feb 3pm.
Runs 2hr 15min One interval.

TICKETS: 020 8940 3633.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 14 February.

Trenchant analysis of north London society in this west London theatre.
Here are two playwrights in one. Torben the tame, producing socially aware realism for repertory theatres, and Betts the beast, with fringe aggro scripts. The Orange Tree sort-of fits between the two – Sam Walters started his excellent venture as a fringe-style pub theatre 40 years ago – so this realistic look at a dinner-party going awry develops savage fangs in its later stages.

It was Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre where then-Artistic Director Alan Ayckbourn set Betts off as a playwright. And Ayckbourn’s influence pervades here, in the trenchant comedy, the kitchen setting with the main social event offstage recalling Ayckbourn’s early Absurd Person Singular, and the Scarborough master’s suspicion of electronic communications. Betts opens and closes with a lone figure at a laptop, while at one point three characters facing away from each other all consult their mobile ‘phones.

And, coincidence or not, the most verbally precise character, who cannot say someone’s twenty-three without adding “years of age”, has the name of the real-life keeper of the flame, the owner of the meticulous and valuable

Muswell Hill focuses on those for whom youth is slipping into middle-age in a city where few incomes match the cost of property-owning and where realising ambition is a struggle. Self-obsession governs most characters, from the youngest with wild ambition to the oldest whose confident statements are undercut by private revelations of emotional need.

In the central generation, one character’s social conscience is a weapon to denounce the selfishness of others; not so much a chip on the shoulder as a whole sack of potatoes. Another flits between good intentions and self-indulgence while looking for a replacement for a husband whose loss is eventually explained.

Mat, the host who evades self-responsibility is the least focused, but there’s a scintillating performance – among many fine ones in Sam Walters’ predictably spot-on direction – from Jasmine Hyde as Jess, the organisational centre of the evening, the one character with a realistic perspective.

Every detail of expression, each inflection, colours-in her opinions and reactions to others; it’s an ideal performance in a play by turns hilarious and gripping.

Mat: Leon Ockenden.
Jess: Jasmine Hyde.
Karen: Katie Hayes.
Simon: Dan Starkey.
Annie: Tala Gouveia.
Tony: Timothy Block.

Director: Sam Walters.
Designer: Robyn Wilson.
Lighting: John Harris.
Assistant designer: Katy Mills.

2012-02-15 14:04:20

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