Review: An Octoroon, National Theatre

One of the best plays, and productions, of last year, An Octoroon makes a hop, skip and a leap from Orange Tree to the National Theatre

“Black playwright? I can’t even wipe my ass without someone trying to accuse me of deconstructing the race problem in America”

An Octoroon transfers to the National Theatre from a hugely successful run at the Orange Tree last year and sells out entirely way in advance. And yet it is Wilde and Pinter who are getting seasons in the West End…time to shake up the orthodoxy I think, even while accepting its a big step from the Dorfman to Shaftesbury Avenue.

Rather than wrestle with Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ complex writing and Ned Bennett’s layered production once again, I’m just going to point you to the fact that I named Ken Nwosu’s performance as my favourite of the year, and I ranked the show as the sixth best of the year (out of 346). My original review can be found here, I’m looking forward to seeing a hopefully more diverse range of responses this time round.  

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (with interval)
Photo: Helen Murray
An Octoroon is booking at the National Theatre until 18th July – currently sold out but returns and Friday Rush available

Review: Out Of Love, Orange Tree

“I’m the only person whose ever loved you”

Reflecting the impressive balance of their Roundabout season (an ensemble that’s 2/3s female and two out of three playwrights being women as well – see artistic directors, it can be done!), Elinor Cook’s Out Of Love places female friendship at the heart of its storytelling. 30 years of love and loss, dreams and betrayals, wrapped into a fractured narrative which denies nothing of how complex a thing friendship can be. 

Lorna and Grace have been great pals since as long as they can remember. But given the structure of the play, as soon as they’re declaring that they are going to be friends forever and that nothing can tear them apart, we’re 10, 15, 20 years down seeing exactly that. The one steals a creative idea and scores an amazing job, the other steals a boyfriend and ends up with a baby, people die and they’re brought back together but much has changed. Much keeps changing. Continue reading “Review: Out Of Love, Orange Tree”

Review: Black Mountain, Orange Tree

“I think we can only heal if we’re both hurt”

There’s acres of atmosphere in Brad Birch’s Black Mountain – the eerie luminosity of Peter Small’s lighting piercing the dark and bursts of Dominic Kennedy’s sound design curling around unexpected twists and turns. But for all of the creative invention at work here, James Grieve’s production can’t quite cover the feeling of something frustratingly incomplete about the writing, resulting in a hollowness at the heart of this would-be suspenseful thriller.

Part of the Roundabout Plays (with How To Be A Kid and Out of Love), Black Mountain starts off promisingly. We meet Rebecca and Paul as they take up residence in a rural cottage where they’re attempting to work through some problems in their relationship (“I didn’t come on a fucking holiday with you”). Sleeping in separate bedrooms, it is clear there’s something seriously awry here as evidenced by the tension in their every interaction (“you’re saying it with a tone”), even as they’re ostensibly trying to fix things. Continue reading “Review: Black Mountain, Orange Tree”

Review: How To Be A Kid, Orange Tree

“Some people expecting you to be very grown up and some people treating you like a kid”

It’s a mark of Paul Miller’s reinvigoration of the Orange Tree that it doesn’t feel too much of a surprise to hear Katy Perry and Little Mix playing in the theatre as you enter. In this particular case it is for a play for seven- to eleven- year olds but still, it feels wonderful that this artistic director has introduced this note of unpredictability to this Richmond institution.

Sarah McDonald-Hughes’ How To Be A Kid arrives here as part of Paines Plough’s trio of Roundabout Plays (along with Black Mountain and Out of Love), a co-production with Theatr Clywd and the Orange Tree which uses an ensemble of three actors to deliver three shining examples of new British writing. And as the opening salvo in the three-show press day, it proved an entertainingly strong start. Continue reading “Review: How To Be A Kid, Orange Tree”

Review: An Octoroon, Orange Tree

“I invented matinées bitches, look it up!”

You wouldn’t have put money on Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre becoming the destination for some of London’s more radical theatre leanings but with Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon, it has done it once again. Less of a surprise is that it is director Ned Bennett at the helm again, reuniting with Pomona collaborators Georgia Lowe (design) and Elliot Griggs (lighting) to provide a headfuck of a production out of a headfuck of a play.

I could talk about the plot, about how Jacobs-Jenkins has adapted Dion Boucicault’s 1859 racially dubious play The Octoroon, but that wouldn’t do this any justice really. For this is a piece of theatre less concerned with narrative drive, with characters that move from point A to point B, but more of a thought experiment, challenging audiences to consider our attitudes toward race, both in how it is portrayed on contemporary stages and how we deal with the legacy of a wealth of drama approaching the issue in a completely different day and age.

Continue reading “Review: An Octoroon, Orange Tree”

Review: Low Level Panic, Orange Tree

“When am I going to wake up and be different?”

How far we’ve come since the 1980s. Or have we? That’s the thread going through Chelsea Walker’s production of Clare McIntyre’s 1988 play Low Level Panic, an insight into the lives of three housemates in their 20s. Dialogue heavy but conversationally acute, we eavesdrop on these women in their bathroom, sharing confidences, fantasies, stories of what it is like to be a woman in a society that continually objectifies their sex.

It may be nearly 30 years old but there’s a sinking awfulness about how recognisable so much of this is. Sexual politics in the workplace, internalised self-loathing, the effects of porn, the looming spectre of sexual assault, McIntyre covers a wide range of issues but approaches them with the complexity they deserve – her protagonists’ reactions to them are nuanced and varied and in Sophie Melville, Katherine Pearce and Samantha Pearl’s performances, deeply compelling. Continue reading “Review: Low Level Panic, Orange Tree”

Review: Winter Solstice, Orange Tree

“A new world which will last for ever…”

I’m pretty sure every time a German production is mounted in the UK, it is slapped with the mantle of ‘most popular contemporary German playwright’ (see Franz Xaver Kroetz’s The Nest from late last year) – a sign that audiences here still have to be led gently by the hand towards European drama with whispered encouragements of ‘well he is the best they have, you know’.

This time, it is Roland Schimmelpfennig’s turn, as his 2013 play Winter Solstice receives its British premiere at the Orange Tree in this Actors Touring Company production directed by Ramin Gray. And it is well worth the effort as though it may flirt with the experimental, it also cuts through to the elemental – as piercing an insight into the rise of the far right as we’ve seen on any stage. Continue reading “Review: Winter Solstice, Orange Tree”

Review: Jess and Joe Forever, Orange Tree

“I thought this was about growing up”

Superficially, Jess and Joe Forever is indeed about growing up, following as it does its two named characters from the ages of nine to fifteen. But it’s also about so much more, as Zoe Cooper painstakingly and poignantly lays the path for one of the most affecting treatments of its particular issue that I’ve ever seen. To say much more plotwise would spoil the play but I will say that even know I knew ‘something’ was coming, from various friends persuading me to go, I was enjoying myself so much in the first half that I’d forgotten ‘something’ had yet to happen.

And that’s testament to the beautiful direction from Derek Bond. Sensitive and nuanced, he takes us through all the growing pains of Rhys Isaac-Jones’ Norfolk-farmer-in-the-making Joe and Nicola Coughlan’s Scotch egg-munching city girl Jess, their relationship progressing from summer to summer. And as they relate their story to us, in a fourth-wall-smashing style that also allows them to reflect on the emotional weight of their life story so far, it’s impossible not to get swept up in the heady humour of their innate differences and the wackiness of rural East Anglian life, facilitated by James Perkins’ soil-covered set design. Continue reading “Review: Jess and Joe Forever, Orange Tree”

Review: Simon Lipkin, Jon Robyns and Giles Terera, Orange Tree

The Orange Tree Theatre continues to ring the changes under Paul Miller’s reign with their Orange Tree Extras, a series of varied one night theatre, comedy, music and spoken word events. This week has already seen Barb Jungr sing Nina Simone and Tim Crouch reprise his I, Malvolio but it was the promise of cabaret from original Avenue Q cast members Simon Lipkin, Jon Robyns and Giles Terera that tempted me out to Richmond.

Avenue Q is a show that I loved with all of my heart when it arrived in the West End, making seven trips across the four years of its various cast and theatre changes. And though I have enjoyed the touring versions that have emerged since, there’s nothing quite like the original and so the news that Lipkin and Robyns would be bringing along Princeton, Nicky, Rod and Trekie Monster along with them was music to my ears, YAYYY as the Bad Idea Bears might have said! Continue reading “Review: Simon Lipkin, Jon Robyns and Giles Terera, Orange Tree”