Previous Convictions

Alan Franks
Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond
(2005)

James Woolley, Octavia Walters and Michael Shaw in Previous Convictions

The Orange Tree in Richmond is a lovely theatre that unearths gems several times each year. It is also not unknown for them to commission new plays that fail to get out of first gear.

Previous Convictions by Alan Franks, better known as a journalist, takes as its subject matter a family warring over Granny's remains, even before she has died.

Her husband was a doctor in Brazil who had a dark secret from which he never recovered. After his death, his once strong wife gradually slipped into senility and an expensive nursing home. This two-and-a-quarter hour drama pieces together half a dozen less than perfect lives as the family clears her house.

Litigious lawyer Helena (Auriol Smith) and her wetter-than-wet husband Sebastian, played by James Woolley, are the oddest couple. The only thing that they have in common is contempt for the self-pitying Sebastian.

Helena continually winds up her daughter, the penniless Amanda, played by Miss Smith's own daughter Octavia Walters. Their frosty relationship is unfortunate as they have little choice but to live together until the family fortune, inevitably blood money, is passed on or dissipated.

This unhappy family is not helped by the return from Brazil of Michael Shaw playing Amanda's Uncle Tony. He is the familial black sheep, but it is not clear why, since he is a teacher and to all intents and purposes an aid worker amongst the poor in the middle of nowhere. He also splits the others further since it is only his sister that resents his presence.

Previous Convictions is a play that has strange depths. It takes 25 minutes to discover that the natural assumption of mourning for the dead is wrong and the lady is still alive. Similarly, a mysterious Harry is introduced with no purpose until an hour later when the occasionally unstable Sebastian uses him for purposes of self-flagellation.

Tony eventually announces that he needs money for a project to help save lives but this is embellished so that by the time it reaches the source of funds, the tissue of lies that he may or may not have invented has become a family-sized toilet roll of them.

At the death, there is a major twist that it would be unfair to reveal. This colours everything that has gone before and begs questions about how these characters would get along thereafter.

Alan Franks may well have been striving for comparisons with Chekhov. However, he does not have a good ear for dialogue and his circumlocutions slow the flow of the play. This is then made worse by Michael Napier Brown's strangely static direction. Theatre in the round requires movement or a gripping plot to prevent audience members from becoming overly familiar with actors' backs or the faces of those sitting opposite. Unfortunately, in this case, it is not too successful on either count.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher