Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

The Thunderbolt

Arthur Wing Pinero
Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond
(2010)

Production photo

The Thunderbolt may be a bit of an old pot-boiler but it is enjoyable nonetheless. Arthur Wing Pinero knows how to construct a well-made play and uses the vehicles of a disappearing will and unexpectedly appearing relation to inject intrigue.

One cannot blame the late Edward Mortimore for cutting himself off from his four siblings. Even King Lear had better luck with his family than this grasping tribe.

The play, written in 1908, explores the sequence of events following his passing. The first problem that even two lawyers played by David Antrobus and Vincent Brimble struggle to resolve is that he has apparently died intestate.

That suits his family, as it means that their eldest brother's considerable wealth will be divided equally between them. In true melodramatic style, they are already spending it before the lawyers have even confirmed that it is theirs.

A complication is introduced in the delightful person of Helen, a beautiful adult daughter of the deceased, admittedly from the wrong side of the blanket, played with appropriate dignity by recent RADA graduate, Gráinne Keenan.

The grasping relatives will happily cut her off without a penny and she seems content with that outcome, preferring the life of an artist, seemingly believing that it is a profession by which a young lady can support herself.

After a considerable amount of legal procedurals and greedy bickering, the play takes an unlikely turn following a confession. This leads us on a wild goose chase after the interval, which seems an unnecessary complication that achieves nothing beyond slowing the action and extending the running time to just under three hours.

Pinero then recovers the position, leading to a highly satisfactory conclusion with every loose end impeccably tied up, almost with a bow on.

A cast of 14 sometimes struggles to fit on to Sam Dowson's period set and too many of them act like a chorus, regularly chiming in simultaneously to get laughs, suggesting that Sam Walters does not have full faith in the text's ability to hold the attention.

Stuart Fox as youngest brother Thaddeus and Natalie Ogle playing his frail wife both make the most of better parts, as does Geoff Leesley who gets his teeth into the role of eldest brother, James, who eventually rises above the pettiness to leave with head held high.

This may not be great art but sometimes that isn't what an audience wants. The Thunderbolt is the stage equivalent of a summer holiday page turner, which will have its own appeal.

Playing until 2nd October

Reviewer: Philip Fisher