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Orange Tree Directors’ Showcase

Sing to Me Through Open Windows
By Arthur Kopit
The Private Ear By Peter Shaffer Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond
(2009)

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Sam Walters has proudly announced that there are now seven artistic directors of major British theatres who began their careers at the Orange Tree. Most, if not all, had spent a year working as assistant directors at this small but influential theatre before graduating with their own production as part of an end of season Showcase.

These farewell stagings, usually created within a very modest budget, allow a free, not to say idiosyncratic choice of play which in the past has revealed some fascinating rarities to amuse or annoy the Richmond theatregoing public.

I fear that Andy Brunskill’s enthusiasm for the New York experimental playwright Kopit will not be shared with many of his potential audience. Sing to Me Through Open Windows is an early entry in the Kopit canon, written in 1959 when he was only 22 and more adept at coining intriguing titles for his work than creating meaningful dialogue.

Strongly influenced by Beckett’s Godot, the play is a one-act three-hander in which nothing much happens not twice but several times. The setting appears to be the crumbling homestead of a failed magician, the impresario Ottoman Jud, nicely played with silky menace by David Antrobus, who is first discovered asleep under a black dust sheet before attempting to face the day in a gold lame dressing gown.

Two younger men are on hand to attend to his needs and try to win his favour. In this British premiere staging Ashley George, playing the schoolboyish Andrew, makes his first entry to open all the windows on to the world then stands about in a state of emotional turmoil tinged with awe, awaiting further developments.

Paul O’Mahony’s clown Loveless, with whiskery make-up like a comic cop in a one-reel silent movie, gets the worst of it, whipped and finally shoved into a tiny box that bursts open as his boss attempts to press down the lid.

Despite spirited playing, just what this was all about remained somewhat elusive. But at least Kopit will be glad to learn that this early work had a stylish UK debut — design by Sharon Davey, lighting by Dan Staniforth — at this prestigious location.

After the interval (and the departure of a sprinkling of audience members) the evening continued with Peter Shaffer’s The Private Ear, a poignant comedy of manners first seen in 1962 and especially written to exploit the unusual talents of Maggie Smith.

Director David Siebert has not only given the piece a well observed, strongly retro production, but has also found in Amy Neilson Smith (no stranger to the Orange Tree) a talented young actress who, as the blonde Doreen, is capable of giving a performance every bit as watchable and engrossing as its original star.

This is detailed quality acting, her body language combining gentle comedy with dramatic tension that reveals her every reaction as the nervous guest of two young men in a slightly scruffy bedsit in Belsize Park.

One is Tam Williams’ intense Bob, who both hopes and fears that he is on the brink of making a relationship with Doreen. The other is Ben Nathan as his wordly, cocksure chum Ted, ready with the smart patter who, as well as putting Bob through his chat-up paces, also acts as visiting chef, preparing a dinner of tinned tomato soup and lamb cutlets, accompanied by a dubious rosé wine.

No surprise then that Ted is soon taking the initiative with Doreen, while Bob blunders on with his musical enthusiasms for Britten and Puccini, briefly touching the right romantic chord with the recorded voice of Victoria de los Angeles as Madama Butterfly.

Given the quality of Shaffer’s writing and social observaton, still relevant after half a century, it was perhaps a pity that this welcome, well-cast revival of The Private Ear was not paired with a revival of its one-act companion piece The Public Eye, neither of which have been seen in London in the last thirty years.

Reviewer: John Thaxter