The Linden Tree
Orange Tree Theatre Spring 2006
J. B. Priestley's 1947 play is a drama of ideas, with discussions and debates on values, religion, science, history and how to spend one's life, and it is as real, involving and moving as you could possibly wish.
A history professor in a backwater university turns 65, and his family gathers to urge him, for their various reasons, to retire.
His son is a for-tomorrow-we-die hedonist. One daughter married a French aristocrat and became Catholic, and is both a prig and a snob; another is a socialist doctor committed to science even at the cost of her own emotional life; the youngest has the uninhibited joy of youth.
And meanwhile father still feels he has something to contribute in sharing his humanistic values with students.
Even that summary should alert you to the fact that we are approaching allegory here, with the characters designed to voice various philosophies, and indeed everything from the welfare state to the afterlife is debated at one point or another.
But such is Priestley's skill and the power of this lovely production by Christopher Morahan that it always remains rooted in a very human domestic drama.
While being made to think about the issues - which were particularly timely in the what-do-we-do-now postwar world and are no less relevant in the new century - we also care about these people, recognise and empathise with the emotions behind the ideas they voice, and feel (not just think) that the questions Priestley raises are important, even though he quite deliberately offers few answers.
Veteran character actor Oliver Ford Davies plays the father with the ease and authority of a master, bringing the character's seemingly unlimited reserves of warmth and wisdom to life in a way that makes you envy his family.
Jennifer Higham invests the youngest daughter (and the play's allegorical Hope For The Future) with a brightness and energy - and a smile - that light up the stage whenever she appears.
If the other cast members are not always as successful in bringing their symbolic characters to life, they each have their strong scenes.
Tom Stoppard, when he isn't being carried away with wit, and David Hare, working at the very top of his form, can write plays of ideas that retain their human drama. It's instructive and delightful to see how easily the underrated Priestley could do it.
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The Linden Tree - Orange Tree Theatre 2006