Dorothea’s Story – January 2014

Experience: 8/10

Adapted by Geoffrey Beevers from the novel by George Eliot

Directed by Geoffrey Beevers

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Monday 6th January 2014

This is the first part of The Middlemarch Trilogy adapted by Geoffrey Beevers from the novel by George Eliot. We’re booked for parts two and three on consecutive days, and already I’m keen to see how some of these characters develop when viewed from a fresh perspective. Today’s offering was very entertaining, with more humour than I’d expected; a TV adaptation years ago had left me with the impression that the story was dreadfully dull and the characters mostly unpleasant and uninteresting, and I’m delighted to report that that assessment was completely wrong. These characters were clearly drawn but not superficial or stereotypical; I could sympathise with many of them while still being aware of their flaws, and I certainly cared enough to want to know what happened to each of them through the twists and turns of a fairly complex plot.

This opening story concentrated on Dorothea and her unhappy marriage to Mr Casaubon, the rector of Lowick. We started off by seeing two potential suitors for Dorothea’s hand: the aforementioned Mr Casaubon and Sir James Chettam, a neighbour of Dorothea’s uncle and one of the local gentry. I don’t know if there are any other suitors in the novel, but these two worked very well to show us Dorothea’s major character flaw – a fanatical yearning for self-sacrifice in a noble cause (poor girl). Naturally with that obsession on her part, plus a reasonable amount of intelligence, she saw the decaying but intellectual Casaubon as a veritable babe magnet compared to the relatively straightforward (and much younger) country squire Sir James.

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Springs Eternal – October 2013

Experience: 7/10

By Susan Glaspell

Directed by Sam Walters

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Saturday 19th October 2013

Not the best Susan Glaspell play we’ve seen here (like you can see them anywhere else?) but the cast were superb, and although the writing wasn’t so strong and the audience a bit unresponsive, we enjoyed our afternoon.

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Seven Year Twitch – June 2013

Experience: 8/10

Written and directed by David Lewis

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Tuesday 4th June 2013

This is a new play, written and directed by David Lewis, and the blend of personal issues, therapy sessions and twitching created a very funny production. The story was told initially through these therapy sessions, with parts of the earlier action acted out in front of us and the relevant therapist. Later, as the relationships became more jumbled, the action flowed from one confrontation to another with frequent changes of location.

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The Breadwinner – May 2013

Experience: 7/10

By Somerset Maugham

Directed by Auriol Smith

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Tuesday 7th May 2013

Another little gem from the Orange Tree, this time with a husband and father, the breadwinner of the title, turning the tables on his spoilt wife and pampered children. Set in 1930, the play deals with the social and economic after-effects of the First World War in a light-hearted way, with the characters making some valid points as well as showing us some less pleasant aspects of human behaviour.

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The Man Who Pays The Piper – March 2013

Experience: 9/10

By G B Stern

Directed by Helen Leblique

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Saturday 23rd March 2013

It would be hard not to notice the theme to this year’s Orange Tree program. First there was The Stepmother, a play by Githa Sowerby about women’s need for financial independence, and now, in this play, G B Stern also exposes the social changes that led to a generation of young women developing careers first and families second. As the next play is called The Breadwinner, the theme is clearly continuing for a while yet. And fortunately, with Sam Walters’ gift for unearthing and scheduling both neglected plays and new work, this is proving to be a season well worth catching, yet again.

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The Stepmother – March 2013

Experience: 9/10

By Githa Sowerby

Directed by Sam Walters

Venue: Orange Tree

Date: Monday 4th March 2013

We’re having something of a Githa Sowerby mini-festival at the moment; given that she only wrote three or four plays in total, seeing two of them in quick succession is quite something, and from what I’ve seen, they deserve to be revived much more often. We’ll be seeing Rutherford and Son in a few weeks’ time; tonight’s play dealt with the financial situation for women in the 1920s, and gave us one of the nastiest male characters to be seen on stage in any play.

Not only was this the first professional production of this play in the UK, it was also our first time upstairs at the Orange Tree. We weren’t as close to the action, and although our position in one of the corners gave us a good view of the performance, we definitely prefer the ground level.

The set was a flexible design which allowed for two other locations in addition to the sitting room in Eustace Gaydon’s house in which most of the action was set. From the entrance corner there was a fireplace with two armchairs on the left side, French windows to the garden in the middle of the far left side (the seating had been moved to the adjacent corners), a sofa with coffee table on the far right and a desk and chair on the right hand side. Between the Prologue and the first act there were some minor changes to the furnishings to indicate the passing of time.

After the interval, there were two short scenes in other locations, and the furniture was rearranged so that both were on stage at the same time. On the far side, next to the French windows, the desk, chairs and the central section of the sofa had been set up as Lois’s business room with the addition of a filing cabinet. On the near side were the fireplace and the other two parts of the sofa, representing Peter’s flat. At the end of the first scene, Lois left her room and walked a few feet into Peter’s flat to continue the play; with the lighting changes this was very effective.

It only took a few minutes for the cast to change things back to the sitting room again, and since the previous scene had left us with a cliff-hanging moment, the energy didn’t flag at all; I was champing at the bit to find out how the story would work out. The final act resolved things in as satisfactory a way as could be expected, and our only disappointment was that we hadn’t been able to make any of the midweek matinees for a post-show discussion.

The Prologue (practically an Act in itself) was set in 1911, and introduced us to Eustace Gaydon’s household. It soon became clear that Eustace had money worries, and that he had relied on receiving a large inheritance from the estate of his recently deceased sister. When he found out who would actually be getting the money, he was angry though he tried his best to hide it, but he soon decided on a course of action which would lead to the rest of the events in the play.

The first Act was set in 1921. With Eustace remarried, his two daughters now had a stepmother, and it soon became clear that the three women got on very well. Lois, the new Mrs Gaydon, was perhaps too fond of her step-daughters, and they loved her as if she were their own mother. There was also the aging Aunt Charlotte, whose increasing deafness and memory loss suggested that she wouldn’t last to the end of the play, and so it proved.

Despite the convention of the wife staying at home to look after the family, Lois had taken her ‘hobby’ of dressmaking and turned it into a successful dress design business. Her husband had taken on the management of her financial affairs, and the girls were both now grown up and the elder, Monica, was keen to be married. Unfortunately, her intended, Cyril, was the son of a solicitor, Mr Bennet, with whom Eustace had fallen out years ago. Mr Bennet objected strongly to the match, and Eustace simply wouldn’t take the subject seriously, laughing off Monica’s pleas for assistance. When Monica turned to Lois for help, she agreed to discuss the matter with her husband. The resulting disagreement, just before Eustace left on a long business trip, led to Lois taking matters into her own hands and promising Mr Bennet that she would provide a settlement for Monica of £10,000. Despite his total disbelief that the money would be forthcoming, Mr Bennet agreed to withdraw his objections once the settlement had been drawn up.

When Eustace returned from his trip and confronted Lois about her promise, the revelations were shocking to her. What was more shocking to the audience was the despicable way that Eustace tried to turn everything round to blame her. I’ve never heard so many gasps of shocked laughter at any performance before, and I’m not sure I’ve heard that many at all the other plays I’ve seen put together. Eustace’s final demand to Lois, backed by the threat of telling her secret to his daughters, was horrifying in its viciousness; by this time I was desperately keen to see him get his comeuppance and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in that.

Lois did at least have someone else to turn to. Her platonic friendship with Peter Holland, a neighbour who also happened to be a lawyer and very rich, changed when Lois found herself in need of more substantial support than a chat. This one transgression was discovered by Eustace, and he held it over Lois to manipulate her to his own advantage. Peter, on the other hand, wasn’t so easy to push around, and his forcing of the situation gave Eustace two options, each equally unpleasant (hooray!). With the set being rearranged for the final act, what would Eustace do?

Well, he basically behaved as he always had; blamed others for his misfortune, charmed where he saw some advantage in it and tried to bully when the charm didn’t work. His final theft of some money before leaving the stage was spotted by one of his daughters, and despite Eustace’s attempt to spread a little nastiness, the girls were determined to stick by their stepmother. Cyril was also determined to stick by Monica, and with a final phone call between Peter and Monica, overheard by Lois, the play concluded satisfactorily.

We were very impressed both by the writing and the performances. It’s not easy to portray such a figure of hate without tipping over into pantomime villain, but Christopher Ravenscroft held the line brilliantly. The audience’s reactions to Eustace’s flagrant deceptions and self-justification were regularly audible: after he asked Lois a question such as “don’t you trust me?” one woman in the audience said “No!”. I would have liked to call out myself on occasion, but at the same time I wanted to concentrate on what was happening with all the characters. Eustace was a very human villain too, the sort of person who does exist and has preyed on others from the dawn of time.

The other characters were nicer, of course, but not without their flaws as well. I did wonder how the young couple would manage once they had to fend for themselves, and Lois was clearly a bit of a wimp despite setting up and running a successful business. With such a strong cast the minor characters were very well drawn too, and I noticed a similarity with Rutherford And Son in that Githa Sowerby has an outsider come in to the play (in this case, Mrs Geddes) to give a different perspective.

This was another great production by the Orange Tree, and I do hope this play will be revived more often; we’d certainly see it again very happily.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Sauce For The Goose – January 2013

Experience: 8/10
By Georges Feydeau, translated by Peter Meyer

Directed by Sam Walters

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Thursday 3rd January 2013

This was an entertaining start to the year’s theatre-going. I wasn’t sure how well a farce like this would work in the round, and although the constant doorway miming got a little tedious at times, it did the job reasonably well and even allowed for some extra humour, mostly between the acts. The cast did a good job, as usual, and despite the slightly excessive number of characters and the complicated plot, they told the story well and got a good deal of humour out of the play.

The set was fairly complicated as well, transforming itself twice into three different locations. For the first act, the Vatelin’s flat was decorated in gaudy colours, with a crudely painted ‘carpet’ in the middle of the floor, a fake fireplace on the left wall, the effects desk by the left entranceway, and a long pouf along the far left side with a regular pouf close by. A table with two chairs stood against the far right wall; from the veneer pattern painted on it, it was a folding table. On the right side stood a sofa, coffee table and armchair. The furniture was as crudely painted as the carpet, and the whole effect was both garish and modern, or at least modern for its time.

The second act was located in a hotel room; this was soon produced by rearranging the furniture and providing some extra dressing. The sofa, poufs and coffee table became a bed against the far right wall, the fireplace was moved round to the far left wall, the table was realigned (it did fold after all) and moved across to the left side, while a bedside table and some bedclothes completed the scene. There were also some nick-knacks and a trunk belonging to the current occupant of the room, but she soon moved out to make way for all the fun and games. Farce being what it is -there were lots of clothes and bags distributed around the room by the end of the act – it took a fair chunk of the interval to change everything round to Redillon’s flat for the final act. The furniture was much the same as for the first act, but with a different layout.

The plot revolved around Pontagnac (David Antrobus) and his obsession with chasing other men’s wives. This time he’s followed home Lucienne, who happens to be the wife of one of Pontagnac’s friends, Vatelin. When Lucienne complains to her husband that a man has been following her, Vatelin is shocked and denounces such behaviour as disgraceful; it’s a different matter when he learns that the man in question is Pontagnac, his friend, and Vatelin soon loses his outrage which doesn’t please Lucienne.

We soon discover that Lucienne has every intention of staying faithful to her husband, provided he doesn’t stray himself; if he does, she’ll be in another’s arms in a trice, and she knows just the man to help her out – Redillon. He hangs around their house all the time, desperate for an affair with Lucienne, but she holds him off resolutely. Things change when a German lady, Heidi, pays a visit to Vatelin and we find out that what happened in Germany was meant to stay in Germany, but hasn’t! Various twists and turns later, there’s quite a party going on at the hotel Ultimo, with all the characters we’ve already met plus a few new ones waltzing in and out of room 13, much to our amusement.

The final act provides Redillon with his long-wished-for opportunity to enjoy Lucienne’s delights, and there’s even another wife keen to get revenge on her unfaithful husband – Madame de Pontagnac. But sadly, a night spent with a beautiful prostitute, Armandine, has left Redillon with a temporary shortfall in the loving department. With Lucienne overhearing (by Redillon’s design) her husband’s tortured confession of his one and only lapse while away in Germany on business, the couple are reunited and, for the most part, everything ends happily.

At the time I felt the play could do with some serious pruning to give us more of the main characters and fewer distractions, but thinking about it afterwards I’m not sure what could be cut apart from Armandine. The servants had some nice little scenes, especially at the hotel, and between the acts they also opened the ‘doors’ so that the stage crew could get into the rooms and move the furniture around – a nice touch.

From the post-show we learned that the actors figure out where to move as they work on the play; apart from some set positions, such as taking tea at the table in the hotel room, they’re free to do whatever feels right. The original play had Vatelin travelling to England for business and used the Channel as the barrier between him and France. In translating the play, Peter Meyer had changed the location to Germany, using the Rhine as the water barrier, and giving Heidi some time spent in England to account for her love of tea. I forget the rest of the points, but it was one of the more interesting discussions.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me