Chains – December 2007


By: Elizabeth Baker

Directed by: Auriol Smith

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Saturday 15th December 2007

This was our first trip to the Orange Tree, and everything about it was enjoyable. The theatre itself is small but beautifully formed, has nice loos, and a civilised cup of tea at the start helped a lot. I noticed a sign about post-show discussions after every Thursday matinee, so that will be something to look forward to on our next visit.

The play was written in 1909, and gives a good account of life at that time for those at the bottom of the white collar employment ladder – the clerks. Supposedly in safe, well-paying jobs, they were being worked like machines (quill-drivers), and just as much at risk of losing their jobs as anyone nowadays. Or if they kept their job, it was only by accepting a salary cut.

We get to see the different opinions and choices made by a group of people in this category. Charley Wilson is a clerk with the usual far-off “prospects”, married to Lily. To make ends meet they have a lodger, Fred Tenant (bit obvious, that). Lily has a sister, Maggie, and a brother, Percy, both of whom look set to be married. Her parents, Alfred and Mrs Massey (honest, that’s what she’s called in the program), also appear after the interval, and there’s a neighbour, Morton Leslie, a big hulk of a man who keeps insisting on climbing over the wall and wreaking havoc on Charley’s garden every time, to sounds of clanging and clattering off stage.

The action starts as Charley and Fred arrive back after their Saturday (Saturday!) stint in the office, and Fred tells Charley he’s off to Australia to make a better life for himself. This is unsettling news for both husband and wife. Lily’s more concerned about getting another lodger; in fact she suggests to Charley later that they could get two lodgers, if he clears his plant cuttings out of the small bedroom. Charley’s upset because he also wants to break free from the chains of office life, and over the course of Saturday and Sunday he decides to make the break. The final revelation on Monday morning stops him in his tracks, and we see him taking on the burden of a monotonous life of drudgery in order to support his family. I’m still not sure whether Lily knows she’s won a sort of victory at the end, or whether her serenity, bordering on smugness, is just due to her natural good temper.

The set and the auditorium were as one. Intimate doesn’t fully describe the closeness. It looked like we’d invaded someone’s living room, put in the audience seats and audience, and let them carry on with their lives. The far wall had wallpaper and pictures on it, behind the audience, and people in the front row were centimetres from the action, if that. Mind you, the whole performance space was less than ten metres square, so cosiness is a given.

The first two acts and the last were in the same room – Charley and Lily’s living room – while act three, after the interval, was in Lily’s parent’s sitting room. The set was changed during the interval, and I was wondering how they’d change it back for the final scene. Different covers had been put on the settee and comfy chair, the fire, carpet and tables had all been moved, and it took a while. The actual change was a lovely piece of staging. Col Farrell, playing Mr Massey, stayed in character, while the other actors became stage hands and started moving all the furniture back in a very organised way. Mr Massey obviously wanted to carry on reading his paper and smoking his pipe, but kept being moved on by the others. Eventually, he sits in a wooden chair, thinking he’s done, and his wife comes along and snatches the paper away. By this time, the set has been completely changed, and he looks around in amazement, realises he’s in the wrong house, and scuttles off. Beautifully done.

All the performances were excellent. Amy Noble, as Lily, was in her first professional role, and carried it off remarkably well. Octavia Walters played Lily’s sister Maggie with a lot of spirit; she’s the one who supports Fred’s plans to go to Australia and helps to fuel Charley’s enthusiasm for a new life. Col Farrell was very good in a small role as Lily’s father, kind hearted but seeing no need for change, and Justin Avoth as Charley Wilson held it all together well. His difficulties in making up his mind were the central issue in the play, and we get to see a slice of Edwardian life that I hadn’t known about before. I found it a very well-written and interesting play, and a very good production.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at

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