FringeReview UK 2018
Three MA graduate directors from St Mary’s present a play in the Orange Tree space. In the second year of Orange Tree’s Directors’ Festival, in this production Dominique Chapman directs, and designer Eleanor Bull fresh from the Linbury Award creates the set lit by Stuart Burgess, with sound by Anna Clock, featuring Sophia Simensky’s costumes. Till July 21st. Transfer TBA.
The Directors’ Festival proves it. After last year’s huge success The Orange Tree Theatre – in Association with St Mary’s University, Twickenham – proves yet again how welcoming it’s being to young audiences, new writing and directorial talent.
Now in its second year, the eight-day Festival promotes three plays (one new), each featured with three new directors and the same design and lighting team – designer Eleanor Bull also fresh from the Linbury Award.
Dominique Chapman revives Ella Hickson’s 2009 Precious Little Talent in a year when Hickson’s The Writer provided her second Almeida premiere in eighteen months, and in 2018 too, providing a look back in wonder at the end of 2008 with Obama’s election. And Hickson’s travelling Brit Joey thought she was jaded then? In a play contrasting American Sam’s optimism with Joey’s austerity-tinged prospects, you feel there’d be less contrast now. Though revised with an added epilogue in 2011 the contrasts bite even harder.
The inventive Eleanor Bull’s set is quieter here than either of her other two prove: a clever use of intimate space with one of audience set of steps a New York stairwell, oldish sideboard, marked mahogany coffee table, comfy chair and poles – both stems of lightshades, and subway handrails.
There’s a stunning moment when Rebecca Collingwood’s Joey exits walking over a basement grille which up-lights garishly with steam from a shrouded recess in the stage floor, working with Stuart Burgess’ light effects. And a ghastly array of cheap rejects: a pink Christmas tree, a purple spangled Madonna and … a giraffe. Anna Clock’s sound bar radio broadcasts including the Queen’s Speech focuses cleanly on dirty woofer-effects.
Hickson’s a wittily inventive writer, playing faux-scenes or repeats from different perspectives as here. At this work’s heart though lies a lucid narrative of clouded events; Hickson’s voice palpably develops. Director Chapman takes it at an exuberant lick but lets Hickson’s playfulness generate the naturalistic storyline.
Twenty-three-year-old Joey’s visiting her estranged father living in New York, unable to take up an MA through lack of funds and even sacked from her bar-job. What price even a first in law a ‘useful’ subject? Precious Little Talent puns bitterly as George laments Joey’s ‘precious talent’ will be squandered, whereas she thinks less of herself.
Less than Matt Jessup’s nineteen-year-old Sam where they encounter each other and we get re-runs of why she licks his lip separated by what surprisingly they share. That’s not before they rush for an exuberant night’s run through the subway, riding and coming out awed at Grand Central with Joey’s defining ‘I don’t believe in you’ and vanishing. And after all he’s four years her junior.
There it might end but for that thread jinxed between them. Sam an aspiring medical student looks after Simon Shepherd’s George, an English professor with irascible outbursts. Sam’s shocked when George tells him to leave as there’s a young woman staying. He’s even more shocked to find it’s Joey who naturally turns out to be George’s daughter.
Something goes wrong in Trivial Pursuits when George is asked to name his field. The anxiety Sam shows trying to loyally hide the nature of George’s illness is heartbreakingly funny. Jessup’s high-octane puppy-dog antics simmer down to a quieter far more sober admission of why George has shunned everyone. It’s early-onset Lewy-body dementia he finally tells Joey, no great reveal. Hickson’s interested more in Joey and Sam. Shepherd’s charismatically frayed as the once dominant linguistics tyro shrunken into broken panels of memory. At the start of Act Three his lucidly devastating monologue ‘What I have is what I had’ spells out exactly why he’s decided to keep Joey away, and why his wife left him for a man from another culture – further isolating Joey. ‘She should leave, … before she realizes I will be leaving her.’
There’s a joyous moment when Joey and Sam hurl themselves across the floor, Joey grabbing a lamp pole as pole-dancing item and Sam as if singing in the rain. It’s a desperate bid for Sam’s hope, and perhaps Joey’s end of hope. Joey’s monologue describing different approaches to sex recalls her previous play on the subject, Hot Mess. Here though Joey contrasts the British ‘angsty, passionate but essentially joyless’ approach with the American ‘like going to the Oscars… I felt he struggled with an overwhelming desire to clap at the end.’ And there after a little more rumination it originally ended.
Hickson revisited the work though two years alter, adding an epilogue underscoring things: ‘Weigh your dreams against the dreams you had as a child – woe betide the man that falls short.’ It’s set somewhere else, things have changed. The balance shifts too. Do see why this un-preciously funny, inherently angsty play deepens.
Chapman’s direction is sure-paced and excellent where it needs swerving. Collingwood’s commanding, funny, vulnerable and ultimately in control of the narrative, from swoops of tonal registers from wild to utter bleakness; and bouncing contrasts as she must with Jessup’s cartwheeling optimism with its mix of warmth, protectiveness and a shrewdness Joey doesn’t always see. They move superbly together, the chemistry fizzing and – nearly always – funny. Shepherd’s gravitas might seem studied to some, but he’s encased in a shell increasingly larger than his shrinking self, conveying withered authority with a shaft of rare obliquity. It’s a production that should, like some of last year’s season, transfer as quickly as possible.