THE AFTER-DINNER JOKE & SQUIRRELS
by Caryl Churchill by David Mamet.
Orange Tree Theatre 1 Clarence Street Richmond TW9 2SA To 7 June 2014.
Runs 2hr 45min One interval.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 2 June.
Promising early productions of contrasting early work by major writers.
For the final time under Orange Tree founder and Artistic Director Sam Walters, the theatre’s season nears its close with the year’s trainee directors sharing an evening, this time with early plays by two leading and senior dramatists from either side of the Atlantic.
It’s hard not to feel Lewis Gray has, not so much drawn the short straw, as cut, shaped it and waved it defiantly. For well over an hour, David Mamet’s play considers one idea. Its squirrels are a device of author Arthur. His young assistant Edmond helps out, sometimes starting new storylines, but is always subordinate, making his place in the literary world through Arthur’s project.
An unofficial approach to new writing comes from the Cleaning Woman who uses her lone hours for story-writing. But as scenes continue emerging the wonder is that a writer so famed for terseness could be so prolix about so little in 1974, only a year before American Buffalo.
Caryl Churchill’s 1978 TV play The After-Dinner Joke is also an early piece, though she had more behind her than the Mamet of Squirrels. It shows her even then craftily allying subject and structure. Slightly longer than its companion in this double-bill, The After-Dinner Joke, carries the viewer forward as its short scenes gradually build a larger theme.
Young Selby wants to leave business for charity work. Her boss, Price, retains her with a job in his organisation’s charitable wing, with its insistently apolitical view of charity, summed-up by celebrities making after-dinner jokes at fund-raising events.
Similarly the journalist who interviews Selby in captivity by freedom-fighters ignores any political statement the captive tries to make. The charity-worker herself ends up prospering back home, where charity evidently ends.
Lydia Larson’s Selby is restrained yet purposeful, and there are well-characterised performances throughout a production by Sophie Boyce which moves the fragmented narrative smoothly along, giving the long-mysterious masked figure who keeps patrolling the stage to sinister music a comic-edge.
These playwrights both being expert at overlapping dialogue, it’s restrained of the directors not to have presented the two as one interleaved show. And sensible.
Arthur: David Mallinson.
Edmond: Peter McGovern.
A Cleaning Woman: Janet Spencer-Turner.
Director: Lewis Gray.
<>The After-Dinner Joke
Selby: Lydia Larson.
Price/Ensemble: David Gooderson.
Dent/Ensemble: Jonathan Christie.
Mayor/Ensemble: Ben Onwukwe.
Ensemble: Rebecca Pownall.
Director: Sophie Boyce.
Designer: Sam Dowson.
Lighting: Stuart Burgess.
Assistant designer: Katy Mills.