Orange Tree Theatre
You may wonder what you are in for when actors come and chat with audience members before a performance begins, but director Tinuke Craig’s revival of Last Easter doesn’t expect you to take part, it's just a way of establishing the fluidity with which Bryony Lavery’s play dispenses with the idea of a fourth wall. That is particularly easy with the in-the-round audience in spaced-out chairs on the flat floor. The only difference is that the cast don’t wear masks and their chairs have wheels.
Things kick off very relaxed as Peter Caulfield as Gash strikes up Easter Parade on the on-stage keyboard; the character is high camp with a line in Judy Garland impersonations and he can find a joke to diffuse any tense situation. He is best mates with Jewish prop maker Leah (Jodie Jacobs) and both are concerned for their friend June (Naana Agyei-Ampadu), a lighting designer whom we first meet enthusing about the chiaroscuro in one of Caravaggio’s paintings. June has cancer, diagnosed as terminal, and they get her to join them for a holiday in France, scheming to take her to Lourdes. To spread the cost they are joined by actress Joy (Ellie Piercy).
They are all showbiz people so it’s perhaps not surprising that their behaviour is very theatrical and this helps establish a comic veneer under which Last Easter can be very serious. While June is handling her situation with stoical control, Joy is manic; deeply affected by the suicide of her boyfriend, she’s trying to drink and dance her depression away.
The first act takes these four through France to Lourdes; four chairs become their car, spinning round to drive facing different sides of the audience. Lourdes seems fake and doesn’t inspire them. Catholic Gash loses faith and June hope, but that doesn’t stop them trying for a miracle.
Act two shifts the attention to dealing with death and June’s request for assistance in suicide, but the jokes don’t stop: as Gash points out, it's a plastic “bag for life” June has to hand for her suffocation.
This play isn’t a polemic about faith and the ethics of euthanasia but an exploration of reactions to them, a sharing of feelings. As you laugh at the brittle high spirits on display, you become even more aware of the raw feelings and the love that they are hiding.
Bryony Lavery doesn’t argue a case, but Agyei-Ampadu’s composed June gains your respect and Caulfield and Jacobs sustain an energy that suggest a determination to cling on to the life force and if Piercy’s Joy at first seems to have lost it, we see her later trying to make sense of things in a new relationship.
This may not be Lavery’s best play, but this Orange Tree revival makes it both moving and entertaining and offers uninhibited acting.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton