Orphans

Wed 24th – Sat 27th October 2012

reviews

Lauren Benson

at 01:39 on 25th Oct 2012

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Social tragedy, dysfunctional families and moral dilemmas, Denis Kelly’s ‘Orphans’ was a highly convincing, well acted reworking of a familiar drama. Although opening in an abrupt, disorientating fashion and continuing in that way, ‘Orphans’ touched upon themes that reoccur again and again in social tragedies such as the recent ‘A View From the Bridge’. On this occasion, however, questions surrounding our failure to communicate brought the play up to date, particularly relevant to today as means and ways of communicating are changing more than ever.

My initial impressions of Liam, Helen and Danny were that Liam was overreacting to the pivotal event that opens this tragedy and that Helen and Danny were significantly under-reacting to it- meaning, in my view, that none of the actors had quite pitched the right tone. What I soon realised, however, was that the playwright had chosen to reflect the process of uncovering the truth in the form of the play, as a disjointed unearthing, to show our struggles with communication as well as the characters’ confused psychological states. The central moral dilemma of the piece is put clearly by Danny when he asks: ‘Is that what the world comes down to nowadays, who we know and who we don’t? Is it?’ Although such a motto like this seems over familiar to today’s ears, it is actually truer than it first appears- in a society frequently fragmented, where even – as ‘Orphans’ shows- our own families can deceive us, our only hope of creating a sense of a community in this world is through acquaintance and forming our own ties. It is who we see everyday who matters most. The play, however, also pointed to the interesting question of how orphans, who have experienced a turbulent upbringing through the social care system, function in modern society.

In many ways, Danny is held up as the ‘everyman’ brought up in a ‘normal’ family who can only watch with faint bemusement the lying, scheming and manipulation of the truth of Liam and Helen who are from a different background and have had very different life experiences from him. Although never intending to be funny, ‘Orphans’ is also darkly comic, the long pauses after intensive questioning can seem awkward, as can the offensive humour sometimes employed which seems out of place and jarring in a play such as this. However, it is nonetheless significant as it relates to the difficulties of communication experienced by all three characters and the extreme lengths they go to, often in vain, to convey their meanings to each other. As all three gradually become embroiled in the plot, the audience is transformed into a bemused jury, who rather like the Inspector from ‘An Inspector Calls’, is left feeling as though none of the characters can be blamed for the event and yet they are all to blame for their failure to correct their mistakes. As the distance from the event increases and their attempts to convey what happened into words flounder, we get further and further from the truth.

All three actors heartily embrace their roles, Liam as the dysfunctional younger brother and Helen and Danny as the matured married couple, both acting mentally younger and older parts respectively. Although the play is highly predictable in its course, the cast make up for its disappointments, acting with authenticity and with a high regard for realism.

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Owen Donovan

at 04:53 on 25th Oct 2012

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Even in the vastness of the Keble O’Reilly, with its double height ceiling, the intimacy of Dennis Kelly’s ‘Orphans’ is its defining feature. Its three principal cast member are constantly the primary area of focus, the stage a single setting and the tension consistently high. Though Rough-Hewn’s production is at times a repetitive shouting match in which its characters become lost, the performance succeeds in forcing the audience deep within these characters’ lives.

With such an intimate story, the play relies on a strong and convincing cast. Unfortunately, Liam Steward-George’s performance as Danny is often stilted and both physically and vocally stiff, lacking the emotional range that the part calls for. This is not to say that Stewart-George is always unsuccessful in his portrayal, and after a key moment in the second half his performance becomes more compelling, now quieter and more subdued. This is much like the show as a whole which, written and performed as intensely naturalistic, is at its best when it is controlled and subtle, and at its worst when the characters fling streams of verbal abuse wildly at each other. Perhaps more of a fault with the script than with this production, Helen (Alice Porter) and Danny’s screaming matches soon turn tedious and too often an escalation in the stakes of the drama leads to these characters becoming simplistic caricatures of angry members of a middle class family.

The production is undoubtedly strongest when David Shields, as Helen’s brother Liam, is on stage. Intensely watchable, Shields puts in an exceptional and believable performance as a sufferer of ADHD, and his presence on stage is captivating from his first entrance to his last exit. Shields and the production team have obviously put a lot of time into researching Liam’s disorder, and it pays off in the beautiful juxtaposition of moments of tenderness next to brief violent outbursts. We as audience members are drawn towards Liam who – in a great directorial decision by Tommo Fowler – stays on stage throughout an interval that takes place in real time. Daniel Cox, who appears on stage briefly as Danny and Helen’s tired and confused son Shane, is also completely credible, adding to the drama’s brutal depiction of a family unit being torn apart.

The masterstroke of this production of ‘Orphans’ is Anna Lewis’ design work. Even before the audience have reached their seats to view the whole stage, we’ve had to walk through Danny and Helen’s working kitchen, past computer speakers playing Brown Eyed Girl and over Shane’s Brio train set. The soundscape of the play hints at the darker world that exists eternally outside of this domestic ideal, and the seemingly simplistic lighting fades seamlessly throughout from warm and homely to intensely cold and bright. The production is technically superb from start to finish, highlighting the slow shattering of the ostensibly faultless world these characters have built for themselves.

Using traverse staging with the audience on two sides of the performance space would usually make a play feel like it was interrupting the audience’s lives, but instead here the opposite seems to take place. Fowler’s production feels brilliantly intruded upon by us as an audience, and both our presence and the two ends of the performance space framed in graffiti and barbed wire quickly break the superficial image of perfect domesticity. The drama of Kelly’s script soon too also fractures these ideal surroundings, and as relationships fall apart, the audience, placed so close to the action by the staging choice, are forced to witness the brutal reality that takes place in front of them.

Director Tommo Fowler’s concept for ‘Orphans’ is ultimately successful, pushing the audience into a scene of peaceful domesticity and then forcing us to be helpless onlookers as this world falls apart. Despite a script that too quickly reverts to situations where characters compete with the volume of their voices and disparities in the presence and emotional range of the cast, an excellent performance from David Shields and inspired and detailed design work make the production gripping and intense throughout.

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