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FringeReview UK 2016

Blue Heart

Orange Tree and Tobacco Factory Theatres

Genre: Absurd Theatre, Comedic, Contemporary, Drama, Magical Realism, Short Plays, Theatre

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre Richmond


Low Down

David Mercatali and Orange Tree and Tobacco Factory Theatres revive Caryl Churchill’s 1997 double-bill Blue Heart. Designed by Angela Davies for Orange Tree’s intimate space a flexible set of props is periodically burst upon by events.


Caryl Churchill’s 1997 double-bill Blue Heart is revived by Orange Tree and Tobacco Factory Theatres. Directed by David Mercatali, designed for Orange Tree’s intimate space by Angela Davies a flexible set of props is periodically burst upon by events.


This in Heart’s Desire features a burst of scampering children in blue, and machine-gunning terrorists, amongst other stray characters. The scenario’s simple: parents of thirty-five year old daughter Susy await her return from Australia with the father’s garrulously inquisitive sister Maisie (Amanda Baxter whose oration on the platypus counterpoints the arrival of a live emu at the door). Brian (Andy De La Tour) overly protective (Susy we find uneasily is his ‘heart’s desire’) had wanted to collect her; his wife Alice (Amelda Brown) is less concerned. Out of this banal low-level conflict Churchill creates a series of possibles, resetting to the top as Brian and Alice endlessly reprise gestures and inflections shifted by extending or varying the on-going conversations.


Thus a knock on the door or phone call can be anything from an accident, Customs officers, a young woman fresh from Australia surprised at the notion that Susy’s returning because they’re in a relationship, and wants to talk of it; or the wild surprises mentioned above which could equally be in the minds of the protagonists – Maisie’s platypus after all isn’t far from the emu. Marital tensions displayed in their relationship for this (almost) never-arriving daughter semaphore everything about the couple’s fraught lives including a pop-up alcoholic son whose presence underpins it all. The title too hints darkness: when its words are uttered by Brian at the end, you feel it lets in furies. It’s devastatingly, painfully funny.


If Churchill reflects Beckett, the absurd, even a kind of speed-read of her contemporary Frayn, one begins to appreciate how much our greatest living dramatist affects others. Anticipating younger many younger dramatists like Nick Payne and Tim Crouch – the latter almost her heir – Churchill remains inimitable because like those variations she never repeats herself but always produces something startling: every play’s an emu, or a platypus under the cocktail cabinet (the latter item rare).


Blue Kettle tends towards its title too, in that the dialogue bloops these two words, increasingly iterated till they’re all that’s left. Derek (Alex Beckett) persuades four women that he’s the son they gave up for adoption forty years ago, though he has a real mother. Each naturally responds differently, and several develop – the Oxford don, a crisp retired insurer, a frail lady remembering a wild time on Lambrettas, the empathic forgiving one he ends talking to having introduced her to the ex-insurer to watch the outfall. He explains to his girlfriend it’s mercenary, but is it? She herself denounces him but does she leave? Derek’s real mother is equally complacent though in a geriatric ward.


And as the last mother standing Mrs Plant whose son’s identity Derek claims he stole after the latter’s demise (she doesn’t necessarily believe him, nor do we) locks into a colloquy of consequences and explanations. We’re increasingly locked out as it reduces to simple phonemes. Frailty of generation, of family, of communicating all that is literally stripped back to DNA or here B and K.


Beckett, here like De La Tour and Brown in Heart’s Desire is exceptionally convincing: his febrile deviousness, their horribly precise triggering of each other honed over forty years. Amanda Boxer too is dottily fine and the whole cast is uniformly excellent.

A major Churchill season is long overdue; her eightieth in 2018 shouldn’t be its only occasion. Mercatali ensures Orange Tree’s warmly-wrought production is as exquisitely painful a delight as Blue Heart can give. It’s the fragility and fury of living in these dark blue chips of brilliance that anticipates not just other dramatists but the increasing acceleration of Churchill’s own plays, the frenetic intercutting, the short-circuiting to essentials with a paradoxically rich set of variables. Escaped Alone might have been nearly twenty years away, but it follows the long series of possibilities – the clones in A Number, or war-bleak absurdist variation in Far Away, the mirroring in Ding Dong the Wicked, and the DNA encoded in each scenario of Love & Information. It’s the most consistently fine corpus of recent dramatic writing we have; certainly the most consistently innovative anywhere in the world. And then some.