by St John Hankin

Orange Tree Theatre 1 Clarence Street TW9 2SA To 4 February 2012.
Mon-Sat 7.45pm Mat Sat 3pm & 5, 2, 19, 26 Jan 2.30pm (+ post-show discussion).
Audio-described 14 Jan 3pm, 17 Jan.
Runs 2hr 30min One minute.

TICKETS: 020 8940 3633.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 20 December.

A well-handled piece that’s less cosy than might at first appear.
This autumn’s 40th Orange Tree season has reflected elements of artistic director Sam Walters’ repertoire: a new play, absurdism philosophically or politically induced from the late James Saunders and Vaclav Havel, and now a revival from Victorian and early 20th-century drama, a distinctive part of the theatre’s identity.

Director Auriol Smith confidently shifts a dozen frocks and dress-suits around the tiny in-the-round stage. St John Hankin’s 1906 play is no lightweight comedy; its first half suck away the comic sugar, revealing quite a bitter pill.

Hankin has neither Oscar Wilde’s wit nor Bernard Shaw’s comic provocation. But like Wilde his play moves from a crowd of comic characters to serious debate among a core, starting with fun at the expense of benevolent but simplistic Lady Denison who, influenced by Damien Matthews’ smilingly complacent Hylton, a sort of secular churchman, fills her house with people nobody else invites.

This comedy’s handled with varying success – Michael Kirk’s cheerily tedious character disappears almost as soon as he’s introduced. Rosemary Smith is over-stiff as boorish Mrs Horrocks, while Shuna Snow just about brings off her assertive, mannered teacher. Philip York is excellent as an old soldier with endlessly meandering memories, making the fellow’s tedium sublimely self-assured.

The whole pack leave in a huff when they discover they’re regarded as social rejects. That leaves Lady Denison’s relatives, Rebecca Saire’s shrewdness contrasting Paula Stockbridge’s blithe confidence in her project, and Olivia Morgan innocently optimistic as the daughter who tests her mother’s philanthropy by declaring she’ll marry young Hugh Verreker, whose shady past has been General Bonsor’s sole plot contribution.

As Verreker approaches his renunciation of a desirable marriage, Oliver Gomm invests him with a sense of inward turmoil under surface calm, a tribute to the actor more than the writer. But the play’s toughest note comes with the family maid Anson, who Chloe Rose gives a quiet below-stairs sympathy.

Made pregnant by Christopher Heyward’s edge-of-politeness servant Soames, hired because no-one else will employ him, she’s dismissed with her unborn child back to her parents, the real victim of Lady Denison’s amateur do-gooding. Cold comfort indeed.

Lady Denison: Paula Stockbridge
Basil Hylton: Damien Matthews.
Margery: Olivia Morgan.
Hugh Verreker: Oliver Gomm.
Mr Firket: Michael Kirk.
Mrs Horrocks: Rosemary Smith.
General Bonsor: Philip York.
Miss Triggs: Shuna Snow.
Soames: Christopher Heyward.
Mrs Eversleigh: Rebecca Saire.
Anson: Chloe Rose.
Butler: Michael Sadler.

Director: Auriol Smith.
Designer: Sam Dowson.
Lighting: John Harris.

2012-01-02 22:48:47

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