Who's the Daddy?

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Lyle Kessler's Orphans

Southwark Playhouse | London

directed by Paul Tomlinson

Dilated Theatre Company's welcome revival of Lyle Kessler's 1983 runaway success Orphans is like a cocktail shaken but not stirred. Loud kicks of emotional intensity give an explosive if frothy boost to the senses, but I was ultimately unstirred by the orphans' plight. The play and this production have all the good ingredients for a satisfying potion, but the result doesn't quite hit the spot. Jack Daniels with water is the drink of choice throughout this dark comedy; I wished Orphans had been diluted with more subtle bouquets than hard liquor. The orphans are the over-excitable and sometimes violent Treat, played hot and cold by Alexander Neal, and his younger, autistic brother Philip, a difficult part acted sensitively and funnily by Chris Pybus. There are several points of obvious comparison with Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, which is even cited at one point. The brothers live in a run-down apartment in Philadelphia, while Treat provides for them both through a life of pick-pocketing and petty crime. He has cared for Philip and protected him from society's harms ever since they were apparently abandoned as children years before. The third and final orphan turns the brothers' world upside down. The impressive Mitchell Mullen plays Harold, a wealthy middle-aged shady character who hails from the city of Al Capone, Chicago. He changes from the brothers' kidnapping victim into their benefactor, employer and father-figure. All hell threatens to break loose when Treat resents Harold's interference with his care plan for Philip (or lack of it). Treat's ear-splitting fist-punching on furniture and deranged book-throwing are genuinely frightening. Orphans' best scenes, however, are Harold's tender ministrations to the eager-to-learn younger brother: helping him put on his new shoes, showing him how to eat bouillon without spilling it all down his front, coaxing him to take breaths of the night air from an open window, even taking him for a walk outside the apartment. Paul Tomlinson's pleasingly fast-paced direction can be a bit clunky at times. For example, the kidnapping scene, while played to comically incompetent effect, lacks any real horrific tension. Later, a crucial strangling scene also seems rushed. Taking a deep breath and slowing things down somewhat at key junctures would improve this production. The American accents could have been better. Philip's cosmic speech about his place in the world is another high point, as are Harold's relentless optimism about Philip's future and his availability to give a shoulder an encouraging squeeze. Gina Rose Lee's Philly housing block set also does Orphans proud. The play itself has fascinating subject matter that just isn't explored with enough depth in Lyle Kessler's script. It's a simple enough tale but too simplistic. I don't want to give away any spoilers but the conclusion reached by Treat is all-too-predictable and without psychological complexity. It left me slightly giddy and not wholly satisfied, but it's worth a trip to the Southwark Playhouse to see this regardless.

photo | ©Richard Darvenport

#london #swkplay

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