In some ways, it is fortunate that this page does not contain a transcript of incomprehensible stuttering. This is not because Orphans, directed by Georgia Bruce, was anything but fantastic, but rather that it delivered such a knock-out blow to its audience, that it was difficult to summon words afterwards. Actors: if you felt that the audience did not clap quite loudly enough, it is because we were too stunned to figure out exactly how to put our hands together.
Orphans’ premise is fairly basic, but thrilling: a quiet night in for a married couple, Helen (Mary Higgins) and Danny (Cassian Bilton), is abruptly disrupted by Helen’s brother Liam (Calam Lynch) entering unannounced, covered in blood. Thus, begins a nightmarish world from which neither the characters nor the audience can escape.
Therefore, it seems completely apt for this play to have been set in the extremely intimate Michael Pilch Studio, a black box, in which it is obvious that the Experimental Theatre Club absolutely excel at making even simplicity sublime. The set excellently designed by Grace Linden is perfect for the three actors to engage in thoroughly hostile domesticity: a laid table lit by a bright overhanging lamp; a fridge topped by the usual household paraphernalia such as magazines; and a cabinet with a microwave on top, are in triangle formation, so that even the stage is often just as at odds as the characters are. This was particularly cleverly designed, so that in an audience who sat forming a square around the stage, you were at different points forced to look at the back of the actor speaking, surprisingly enhancing the play, as you were enticed to look at characters’ expression which you may not normally.
It was clear before the play had even begun that this was to be an outstanding production, Cassian Bilton’s and Mary Higgins’ effortless interaction with the set and with each other, as they danced together and flicked through magazines as the audience filed in, made clear that they are exceptionally talented actors. With only three actors on a fairly minimalist stage, and with the sense that this play could easily fail if the words had come out of the wrong mouths, it was an extremely impressive feat that these actors managed to do justice, and beyond, to Dennis Kelley’s play.
It is not so much that this play was consistently outstanding: the actors were undoubtedly good, as was almost every aspect of the production, but not every second was magnificent. Yet, it was the rawness of the acting in an otherwise perfectly smooth production, even tiny blips and errors, which helped the play to build to a point where it became truly the best I have yet seen.
Indeed, the audience may not have realised quite how exceptional the actors were until the climax of the play. One of the truly remarkable aspects of this performance, is that despite the audience being very much absorbed in the setting of a normal family kitchen, the actors often transported their audience into the consistently referred to urban surroundings: you could imagine these characters on buses, with their child Shane in play parks. One of the highlights of the play, was Cassian Bilton, who in one scene so transports the audience to the shocking image of a man with ‘holes’ and ‘slashes’ that if the image had physically been there on stage, no matter how well done, it would have been a disappointment in comparison to his heart-wrenching and vivid words. Recounting this scene brings tears to my eyes again.
In fact, all the actors were so distinctly believable and absorbing. Calam Lynch, impressively retaining a South-East London accent throughout, was horrifyingly good, to the point that as his character became increasingly vile, I struggled to look at him, as if such a man truly stood in the audience’s presence. Mary Higgins as Helen, was probably the most consistently excellent actor of them all. When a child entered onto the stage, and Higgins wrapped the boy in a maternal embrace, despite being student actor, I could believe that she was truly the boy’s mother. In another scene of the play in which she recounts one of her fondest childhood memories, she gave a haunting whilst simultaneously touching performance.
The true merit of the play was that it built tension so well, so much so that it almost caught the audience by surprise: black comedy which before could be tittered at was eventually met with horror, subtle and seemingly innocent elements of the play became poignant to a point that it was difficult to watch, and characters were driven to such climaxes that the actors’ performances left the audience emotionally fraught. Afterwards, absolutely astounded, I struggled to even walk out, so trapped in the world they had created. Orphans was such a triumph, that I now believe it is a necessity to attend anything and everything of the Experimental Theatre Club’s to come.
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