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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Next Time I'll Sing To You
Orange Tree Theatre    Autumn 2011

James Saunders' 1962 play is sometimes very clever, sometimes very funny, and always quaintly old-fashioned in the way only yesterday's avant-garde can be.

Like many other writers of his generation Saunders was very strongly influenced by Beckett (whole chunks of this play echo bits of Waiting For Godot but then, to be fair, Saunders clearly influenced Tom Stoppard, and whole chunks of this play are echoed in R & G Are Dead), by Pirandello, by the Existentialists, by the Absurdists, and by everything else that was in the air, and Next Time I'll Sing To You is virtually a catalogue of ideas and stage techniques that were hip and exciting at the time. 

It's not his fault that fifty years have passed and we know that everything here was said and done before and dozens of times since, often by better playwrights. 

The play is ostensibly an attempt to tell the story of Alexander James Mason, the real-life 'Hermit of Great Canfield'. But Saunders' characters, the supposed author and his actors, keep getting sidetracked into questions of philosophy, morality, metaphysics and theatricality, completely demolishing the Fourth Wall in the process. 

They do eventually get the basics of the Hermit's story told, but it is the least of their interests. Only one of them seems to know they are acting in a play, and he cynically comments on the others' fantasies of having free will, and suggests that once having written characters an author is like God stuck with what He's created. Another doesn't get any of that, but cheerfully tries to go with the flow. 

The 'author' is determined to see the hermit's story as a metaphor for the way we are all isolated in our own minds, though trying to explain that frequently leaves him lost in his own verbiage, while the 'actor' playing the hermit identifies so closely with his character in a Method Actor way that he insists that he be played as a saint, and a girl who has just wandered in tries to keep up in a situation where everyone but her seems to know what's going on.

Some of this is very clever, in the way philosophical riddles posed to undergraduates are clever, and some of it is very funny in a scatter-shot way; one of the best comic sequences is a total digression in which the girl expounds at eloquent length on the legitimacy and value of premarital sex and then shoots it all down with a punchline.

Few faults can be found with Anthony Clark's fast-moving production, with acting honours going to Brendan Patricks as the cynic and Holly Elms as the girl. 

But unless you've never been to the theatre in the past fifty years you are likely to come away from this play with a strong sense of deja vu and an understanding of why Saunders will always be relegated to footnotes and 'And also' status in theatre history.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -   Next Time i'll Sing To You - Orange Tree 2011

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