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The Theatreguide.London Review

Orange Tree Theatre  Winter 2016-2017

Along with his novels and short stories Somerset Maugham was a master of a kind of lightly satiric stage comedy that they just don't write any more.

So we can take real delight in Orange Tree Artistic Director Paul Miller's decision to revive this 1934 gem. You will laugh a lot, be touched a bit, and perhaps moved to some serious thoughts. 

The title character is an amiable little man, a barber popular with clients and co-workers and loved by his wife and daughter.

He is the sort of guy who, without being naive, can testify against a thief in court and then feel sorry for the man, or discover that a woman at his local pub is a whore and decide to chat with her anyway, just because she's pleasant company. 

And then Sheppey wins thousands in the Irish Sweepstakes. 

His immediate plans are thoroughly conventional to pay off his mortgage, buy a retirement cottage in the country and give his daughter and her boyfriend a big wedding. 

But Sheppey is a sensitive man, aware of the poverty around him, and his simple Christianity leads him to decide rather to give his winnings to those less fortunate. 

His charity is personal and unassuming he'd rather give a few bob to someone who needs a meal right now than work through organised charities, and when his whore friend loses her home he invites her to stay with his family for a while.

His wife is bewildered but supportive, but his daughter and her beau are frightened by what he's doing with 'their' money, and soon a plot is afoot to have Sheppey declared mad. 

What distinguishes this play, aside from some very funny bits and a few touching ones, is the playwright's own clear-headed charity toward all the characters. 

Sheppey may be an innocent idealist but he is no fool and certainly not crazy. The young couple may function as the villains of the piece, but their self-centredness is almost forgiven as the inevitable product of their youth. And the whore may be both wise and charming, but she is also just a whore. 

Director Paul Miller and his cast are well worthy of praise for sustaining the play's very fragile understanding and forgiving tone and thus creating an evening that makes its satirical points without being bitter or preachy and is warm without being soppily sentimental. 

Near the end, the plot takes a supernatural turn, and the director's skill and sensitivity in navigating a shift in reality is further evidence of his complete control of the evening. 

As Sheppey John Ramm captures all the man's uncomplicated goodness without ever letting him look foolish, so that both our sympathies and our intellectual approval are always with him. 

Dickie Beau makes us recognise the whore's strength and even moral authority without ever sentimentalising her, and accomplishes a particularly effective surprise twist near the end. 

Katie Moore and Josh Dylan guide us toward forgiving the young couple for the crime of being young, and the rest of the cast ably double roles as Everyone Else.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Sheppey - Orange Tree Theatre 2016

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