Friday, April 15, 2005

Previous Convictions - Orange Tree Theatre - 12 April

Written by Alan Franks
Directed by Michael Napier Brown
Designed by Sam Dowson
There are things about the Orange Tree that make me uneasy. It isn’t the rack of mugs on hooks, Dymo-taped with the names of the cast and crew, which I once saw on a wall at the side of the bar. That was just a cute and homely touch. It’s really that I’d like to see Octavia Walters acting somewhere else. I have actually seen her acting somewhere else (Jane Eyre at the Young Vic eight years ago) but not recently and her biog in the programme doesn’t mention too much other than the Orange Tree. It isn’t that I’ve heard her acting being criticised and I have seen some of her performances praised. It is just that she’s the “daughter of the house” so it is easy for things to look like nepotism. It is no worse, I suppose, than a director choosing a bed-mate in a lead role but it still doesn’t feel quite right.
Actually Octavia Walters seems to have established a pattern in the last couple of roles she has played at the Orange Tree. Both roles had her playing well educated, rather self-absorbed young women, going nowhere, spouting environmentalism and anti-capitalism and being capable of manipulative cruelty. It probably says more about the choice of play than her true personality but I’m not sure I can think of her differently just now.
I haven’t seen her mother, Auriol Smith, in anything like as many plays and only one at the Orange Tree. I have a slight problem with her, which I’d noticed on occasions I’ve seen her watching plays at the Orange Tree. Her face and her hair don’t match. Her pale face with the bags under the eyes, seems to tell you that she ought to have grey or greying hair, perhaps even dyed blonde to hide the onset of grey, but her hair is a rich brown with only the tiniest hint of grey near the ears. I don’t like to think that she hides the grey by dying her hair - it would seem too vain somehow. There were times during the play however, when colour came to her face and animation to her eyes, that her hair colour ceased to matter.
I last saw James Woolley playing Lord Hutton, in the Tricycle’s Hutton Inquiry restaging, Justifying the War. At that particular production the theatre was insanely hot and stuffy, largely because of the presence of large plasma screens on stage and the fact that the air conditioning was too noisy to be kept running during the play. There was something I found chilling in one drunken rant his character made. He was talking about the failure of his life, how he had drifted through his twenties and thirties without really achieving anything (not really trying either) and how he had reached the age where men become invisible.
One of the things that the Orange Tree prides itself on is that it is London’s only permanent theatre-in-the-round. While this is true I sometimes feel that the plays aren’t always directed with that in mind. It might be that I like sitting in the rows of seats farthest from the door and opposite the control room but I often feel that plays are being played towards that control room. Of course the only way to test this would be to see plays multiple times from all the different angles. It is just a feeling that some plays aren’t made with all sides in mind.The set was a disused bedroom slowly being cleared of clutter. A bookshelf with old Penguin paperbacks interested some of the audience before the play and during the interval. None of them particularly caught my eye other than a biography of Mussolini that was left in the open. I did wonder if it was significant but nothing was made of it. Another book of which nothing much was made, was a diary found towards the end of the play by the daughter. She went into hiding shortly after discovering the diary but it didn’t look as if she’d been able to read it. Yet she was able to talk about what was in it. Not that, when it came to it anything was made of its contents.



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