Orphans: A Preview


There’s no time for rest in the Experimental Theatre Club; by the end of the first week of Trinity term they will already have wrapped up a production of Dennis Kelly’s Orphans at the Pilch studio. I went along to what was one of the cast’s first rehearsals for Orphans, for a discussion of what the production is to become; a glimpse of the rehearsal process; and a remarkably polished cold reading of the play’s opening.

The eponymous orphans are Helen (Mary Higgins) and Liam (Calam Lynch) and the Pilch shall be transformed into the familial home of Helen and her husband Danny (Cassian Bilton). This domestic safe-zone of theirs is threatened, and their sense of loyalty stretched, when Liam arrives, in the middle of the couple’s celebratory dinner, completely covered in blood. The rather simple dramatic set-up, which takes place within this one room between just three characters, gives way to the much heavier, complex moral issues of familial duty, race, and crime, and this one small snapshot – of a couple of hours in Helen, Danny and Liam’s lives – forms part of a much larger, murkier picture. Further, it is not a play which is complacent to merely depict, but instead forces audiences to challenge their own preconceptions and question everything – even, according to Assistant Director Ell Potter, their own compliance with the play’s events.

One of the advantages of the ETC’s approach to theatre-making is their emphasis on its collaborative nature, which allows the cast and crew to develop a shared vision of any production, and in turn ensure that they deliver an extremely unified, coherent show. What exactly the vision is for this production was not yet exactly clear from the preview, but then director Georgia Bruce is keen to steer clear of any overly prescriptive direction or interpretation. Furthermore, what could have felt lacking in terms of this clear vision is made up for in the cast and crew’s evident enthusiasm for the play. Indeed, it is clear that this particular project is headed by a genuine passion for the text itself; they are not out (though the ETC website may suggest otherwise) to break as many boundaries as possible for the sake of being experimental. Nonetheless, they are setting out to give their audiences a unique experience – Jonny Danciger (director of Hilary Term’s Pilch success, Mercury Fur) will be creating an immersive soundscape for the show, and even elements of Grace Linden’s design will play on the notions of concealed violence and corruption.

It will be extremely interesting to see the result of Georgia Bruce’s direction; this play is her first non-comedic directorial project. Though the language of the play can often be darkly comic, sitting in on one of her rehearsals feels more like watching a therapy session than anything approaching sketch comedy. In a hot-seating-esque exercise, she helps the actors further acquaint themselves with their respective characters by forcing them to prise home truths out of themselves. It is an intense affair; I didn’t stay to watch Calam Lynch (as Liam) take his turn in the hotseat, but by the time he did so there was a palpable tension in the room. A certain expectation had been built up around his character, what he was capable of, and the impact his actions had, which made even watching him walk up to the chair rather compelling. When they come to rehearse with the script, the cast will be able to approach it with a full appreciation of the motivations of their characters and the turning points in their narratives. Perhaps most interesting was noticing both Bilton and Higgins’ characters identify the same moments of their lives as ones in which they felt most scared and most excited during the improvisational exercise, though each of their performances felt very distinct and idiosyncratic.

If the ETC’s tangible enthusiasm for Orphans, as well as the intense and engaging atmosphere they managed to bring to their first rehearsal alone, translates into the finished product come 1st week, then we should all be very excited indeed about this production, which certainly has the potential to be a very affecting, thought-provoking piece of theatre.


‘Orphans’ by Dennis Kelly will run at the Michael Pilch Studio, Wednesday – Saturday of 1st Week, Trinity Term.


Image// Misha Pinnington


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