The Theatreguide.London Review
Orange Tree Theatre February-March 2015
There is some strong writing in Alice Birch's new play, and insight into how attempts to cope with unbearable pain can sometimes make it worse. But a structural reliance on mystification and withholding important information threatens to distract the audience from what's central and to diffuse the play's effect.
We're in the seaside home of Alison and Teddy, where they are soon joined by Alison's very pregnant sister Clarissa and then by Clarissa's older lover Simon. But everyone is acting oddly about some thing or things they're not talking about.
Instead of preparing lunch Teddy has been manically redecorating, to the extent of tearing out the stairs to the upper floor. Alison is legitimately annoyed at that, but even more at what seems a minor point, the fact that lunch will now not be the menu she expected.
Clarissa, when she arrives, knows something that has happened before is planned and begs her sister to skip it this time, and Simon risks butting in on a private family event in the hope of protecting Clarissa from something.
At lunch the sisters and Teddy act out what appear to be rituals, reciting conversations by rote and mechanically duplicating what are obviously carefully rehearsed actions, and as much as they are sometimes at odds with each other, they unite in resisting Simon's attempts to short-circuit what is clearly for all of them a painful ceremony.
By midway through the ninety-minute play the room is cluttered with elephants nobody is acknowledging, and the audience can be excused for being so distracted by trying to guess what's really going on that they lose track of what is happening.
Eventually at least some of the elephants are identified, and they have to do with something dreadful that happened in the past and with simultaneous and conflicting impulses to remember, forget, punish and forgive.
The revelations are powerful, but the danger is that they may come too late for the audience to care anymore – or, rather, to treat them as anything more than the solving of a mystery, having lost emotional connection to the characters.
Still, Birch's writing is filled with emotion even when we're not sure what the emotion is about, and each character is allowed an extended aria that goes far toward helping us understand them.
Director David Mercatali keeps the temperature high, and Lorna Brown, Paul Rattray, Yolanda Kettle and Paul Hickey strive admirably to keep our focus on the people before us and not the secrets being kept from us.
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