Next Time I'll Sing to You
Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond
"She said it would be like this - I wouldn't believe her," says a character called Lizzie in this strange play and that's probably how an audience might feel about it. First staged at the Questors in 1962 and winning its author the Evening Standard Most Promising Playwright Award in 1963, Next Time I'll Sing to You is a sort of cross between an entertainment and an academic seminar. Its theatricality begins with the snapping off of houselights to leave a starry sky beneath which someone bumps into something in the dark but when another light comes on we aren't outdoors but in what might be a lecture hall or a rehearsal room. One of the characters later calls it an arena. In fact we are exactly where we are watching this, acknowledged to be there and sometimes spoken to directly. We are there tonight but the people on stage are there every night and it seems the same things are said and the same things happen.
This first arrival, Meff, seems to be a bulky stand-up comic. He tells bad jokes and starts to read us an existentialist lecture: later he refers to himself as the warm-up. Roger Parkins, making his professional debut, is good at handling the audience and makes him bafflingly watchable. He is joined by a bloke called Dust, suavely played by Brendan Patricks, who is pompously sure of himself, and then by Lizzie, standing in for her look-alike sister, though whether this is a change to the usual repetition or all part of it is up for interpretation. She proves a breath of fresh air among all the intellectualising. Holly Holmes gives her a gauche openness. She hasn't a clue what is going on but decides she fancies Meff.
Finally the instigator of the session appears. This is Rudge, a donnish figure, always late apparently, that's part of the repeated pattern, or you could see him as a director (some commentators have the action as being a play rehearsal - was Saunders decades ahead in seeing practice as research developing in academia?). Aden Gillett plays him with a confident but slightly otherworldly air that matches the flowery ego trips of metaphorical philosophising he often embarks on.
Part of their investigation is to examine the life of real life late nineteenth-century recluse Jimmy Mason, known as the 'Hermit of Canfield', and eventually an actor turns up, engaged to represent him. While the others are concerned with philosophical speculation he just wants to know the motivation of this man who surrounded himself with barbed wire and corrugated iron for nearly forty years until he died, aged 84 in 1942. Jamie Newell plays him superbly both as the self absorbed actor and the cantankerous hermit he turns into, his hook-on beard surreally turning into a real one as the evening progresses.
There were times when the first half of the piece seemed irritatingly juvenile, a student send up of academics and absurdism. Though Anthony Clark's direction with its jokey lighting cues and clever quips in the dialogue kept my attention I noticed a few empty seats after the interval. Those punters should have stayed for the second act takes off with a lengthy rhapsodic piece about nightingales and the countryside stunningly delivered by Gillet's Rudge; there's a threnody about grief and Patrick's Dust gets his own flight of literary extravagance, all splendidly delivered.
This is not a deeply profound piece, though its characters make profound pronouncements, it's a game to be enjoyed moment by moment, and the moments get better in the second act.
"Next Time I'll Sing to You" runs at the Orange Tree Theatre until 10th December 2011
Reviewer: Howard Loxton