This adventurous Richmond theatre makes something of a specialty of rediscovering hundred-year-old plays, and they've delivered another gem with Arthur Wing Pinero's 1908 melodrama-satire.
Using a contested will as his starting point, Pinero artfully dissects provincial middle class pretensions and hypocrisy while still giving us several characters to care for. And director Sam Walters, with his usual sensitivity to the period, guides his large cast (Who else but the National does plays with 16 characters?) through an engrossing and thoroughly satisfying evening.
The play runs close to three hours, and wouldn't have been hurt by a little trimming, but I've been to many hour-long plays that felt much longer.
A rich man has died without a will, and his siblings, all big social fish in a small town, immediately begin salivating over the estate. The discovery of an illegitimate daughter is a minor complication, especially since the attractive and independent young woman denies any intention of fighting for a cut of the spoils. But what if there is a will after all?
Pinero's satiric barbs are aimed primarily at the family members, unctuously supportive and united but immediately backbiting whoever has just left the room, and quick to spend the money they haven't actually got yet, and he invites us to enjoy watching them dig themselves deeper and deeper into their moral and economic holes.
The play's sympathies lie with the one honourable brother and his wife (naturally disdained by the rest of the family) and with the daughter, who are faced with ever more disturbing moral dilemmas as the plot thickens.
Indeed, by the interval, Pinero seems to have written himself into a moral corner from which no happy escape seems possible, and one of the pleasures of the play is watching him find his way to a satisfactory conclusion.
As always, Sam Walters stages things expertly in this theatre-in-the-round, so that even with a dozen or more actors present the sightlines are clear, and as always he guides his actors to rounded characterisations that, for all their satirical quality, never lapse into mere cartoons.
Special acting honours go to Gráinne Keenan as the daughter, Stuart Fox and Natalie Ogle as the trying-to-do-the-right-thing couple, and Geoff Leesley as the leader of the family jackal pack.
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- The Thunderbolt - Orange Tree 2010