Next Door’s Baby

 

The Orange Tree, Richmond Surrey, February 2008

 

Review by Emma Shane

© February 2008

 

A quick word  of warning, this is one of those lengthy reviews, with a plot spoiler, intended more to inform those who might never get the chance to actually see the show, and as memory aide to those who have already seen it. Though a review like this is no substitute for the thrill of witnessing a live performance (especially one with the immediacy of fringe theatre).

 

The Orange Tree may be one of the finest fringe theatres in London, however it does not usually includeWest End type actors” among its cast, at least not according to it’s Box Office. Mind you it probably wouldn’t usually include famous puppeteers either. However, this current production of Matthew Strachen’s new musical Next Door’s Baby, happens to include among its cast a performer who is both. And Louise Gold, in the key role of Mrs O’Brien is the first person on the stage at the start of the show. She is wearing a floral print dress, with a floral pinafore apron over it, along with thick pale brown stockings (or possibly pop-socks), and brown medium heeled shoes (with quite a chunky heel). Her own lovely red curly hair is pinned up, with a few clips and things; and on her clever left-hand is a silver coloured ring, clearly representing a wedding ring. Right away she starts to sing, Hold It All Together. The Orange Tree stage (which is in the round) seems unusually cluttered; and as she sings her nimble fingers fairly fly about the set, getting out a bowl of dough, which she proceeds to kneed, wiping her hands on a cloth, and, setting the table. It’s jolly impressive, and very good too, because it sets up the character, as someone who is always busy with household chores. All the same I couldn’t help thinking that it isn’t just any performer who could sing and perform quite so many complex actions at the same time, but not for nothing is Louise Gold an experienced television puppeteer (and a veteran Henson muppeteer at that). The first time I heard it, only weakness with this opening number is that it has quite a fast tempo, and one of Ms Gold’s few faults is that she is not a natural fast tempo singer. Nevertheless she is a consummate professional who does her best with it, but anyone who knows her vocal abilities well can hear her voice struggle a little; and one cannot always hear the lyrics too clearly (another of Ms Gold’s weaknesses is a tendency to poor diction, when she is tired). However, overall her performance is more than satisfactory. She is an accomplished trouper after all. The second time I saw the show I think they may have slowed the song down a touch it seemed to work much better, and Ms Gold’s diction was much improved too. As she sings the rest of the O’Brien family enter: first there is Vincent Shiels as Larry the younger boy. It was quite obvious he is much older than the character he is playing, nevertheless he plays the boy (a very Just William sort of a boy) rather well. Then his younger sister Sheila, played by Clare Louise Connolly. She too is actually a grown up actress, however she played the young girl so well, and is so short, that one would not have guessed. Next in older son, Dickie played by Stephen Carlile, and finally his sister Orla, played by Riona O’Connor. Each of them enters with some kind of distraction: Larry with his comic, Sheila with her book (actually a bible), Dickie with a newspaper, and, Orla with the baby Connor’s bottle. I couldn’t help thinking at this point she might be the baby’s mother; though the way Mrs O’Brien speaks about Connor suggests he is hers (her fifth). The set incidentally is basically in three parts, if one enters the auditorium as an audience member, the O’Brien’s Kitchen is to our right, and the Hennessy’s table and chairs to our left, straight ahead running diagonally across the stage is an outdoor path.

 

It’s quite obvious that Mrs O’Brien rules the roost, so it’s a good thing the role is played by an actress with such a strong commanding stage presence. I really enjoyed the nice touches of her removing their various distractions as they sit down at table, while dishing up the soup (ladle in her left-hand), and every so often reaching over to cuff Larry round the ear (also mostly using a flick of that skilful left hand). Busy the number certainly is, but it really sets the scene. By it’s conclusion they are all sitting (well the second time I saw it Mrs O’Brien was standing at that point) round the table ready to eat, but first they must say grace, one of the males asks for the short version. During the Grace all have their eyes shut, except Mrs O’Brien and Larry, the former because she has to keep one of those bright beady brown eyes of hers on Larry, and cuff him when he fidgets. I thought that a nice little touch. After the meal, comes the evening paper, and the news that the newspaper is running a bonny baby competition. Of course they are going to enter Connor. Sheila fills out the entry form (under her mother’s instructions), and Mrs O’Brien goes to post it. She wears a grey coat, but no hat (in all the other “outdoor” or exiting scenes, apart from the Church one, she has a grey hat settled on her titian curls).

 

Also going to post a competition entry is their neighbour Mrs Hennessy, played by Brenda Longman. The two bickering matriarchs duet Just Grand. Well it’s supposed to be a duet, except that Louise Gold, with her big loud voice and strong stage presence rather dominates the number. Because this is fringe theatre the audience is very close to the actors, so close we can see their facial expressions. Louise Gold is a very expressive performer, and she makes such excellent use of her facial expressions conveying her character’s reactions to other performers’ dialog. Thus in this number whenever she isn’t singing one almost can’t help noticing her reactions. Would one want her to tone them down? Well no, it’s so very much a part of her, that her performance would loose something if she were to do that. The number is just grand, and both ladies sing it well. It seems to suit them both vocally. Musically the number seems to have a passing similarity to Kurt Weill (well the tune reminded me very slightly of The Army Song in Die Dreigroschenoper)

 

As part of the competition entry they have to get Connor photographed, so back in the O’Brien’s kitchen the next day they are leaving for the photographers. Both families’ babies are represented by bundles (containing dolls to represent the babies – the usual theatrical device). Mrs O’Brien unexpectedly puts rouge on the baby’s face (“To bring out the blue in his eyes”). However, Orla is left alone to mind the house and brown the mince. She laments her relationship with her mother Do This, Do That. A fine melodic song with which Riona O’Conner comes to the fore as a pretty strong actress too, which is just as well given that she is such a central character. We really start to feel very sorry for “Cinders” as Dickie calls her. Here for the first time, we also get a hint that her mother wasn’t always so nasty to her. It’s been clear that Dickie and Sheila seem to be mother’s favourites, while Larry is understandably to be kept under control, but Orla, one realises that when she was younger her relationship with her mother was better. What changed that?

 

The family return from the photographers. Dickie’s girlfriend Dymphna, played by Elinor Lawless visits, they are engaged (though no ring yet), and she wants Dickie to name the date for their wedding. A rather superfluous character named Uncle Willie, played by Robert Gill drops by, he addresses Mrs O’Brien by her first name, Mary, and she gives him a cup of tea “just the way you like it”. (I noticed her putting three spoons of sugar in it, and sniffing the milk to make sure it hadn’t gone off). This comparatively peaceful situation is upset by the sound of a commotion next door. A man, apparently drunk, is hammering on the Hennessy’s door. Orla wonders if they should go and help, but is told not to. Mrs O’Brien insists on being left along to quieten the baby. She stands or sometimes sits, alone on the stage, holding the bundle in the crook of her right arm and sings Mrs O’Brien’s Lullaby. This was a nice song, and of course even the first time I saw it,  Louise sang it quite decently, for a moment it almost made me think of Sondheim’s Children Will Listen, but this afternoon I found that Louise a little strident. Now while is obvious a matriarch like this character is meant to be strident; however, I felt this was the one moment in the show, alone on the stage, which could perhaps have been an opportunity to show a more gentle side. It’s clear that Mrs O’Brien adores Connor, but could she have demonstrated that vocally? Although Louise Gold has very loud powerful pipes, she can sing very sweetly when she wants to. Watching the show I wondered whether perhaps it would have been difficult for her to maintain the Irish accent and sing sweetly, and yet when she played The Irish Woman in the musical of The Waterbabies she managed to sing very sweetly, so it should have been possible. The second time I saw the show, she changed the way she did that song, making it much gentler, with a very slight  touch of the way she does both Children Will Listen, and, Me And My Baby in her cabaret sort of worked into her more tender performance. It was a much more convincing take. I particularly noticed the way she looked at the bundle, rather like the way she looks at the baby puppet in her cabaret act.

 

Orla and Miriam, both feeling the need to get out of doors, encounter each other on a bench. Miriam, Mr and Mrs Hennassy’s daughter, played by Emily Sills, is, we have been informed a young widow, with a baby (called Max) who’s husband was American. Although Miriam is a Catholic, and as she now tells Orla “I had a good Catholic marriage”; it has earlier been noted, by Mrs O’Brien (of all the characters to have to deliver that line), that “Miriam” is a Jewish name. Anyway, when Orla and Miriam meet, we see that Miriam is quite a vivacious girl. She sings about Secrets, and decides to tell Orla her secret, she isn’t really a widow, she is separated from her husband, because he beat her, and she was afraid he would hurt their baby. It was he who was battering at the door. Miriam feels much better for having told someone her secret. She is sure Orla has a secret too, and urges her to tell it. But Orla insists she’s an “open book” and hasn’t any secrets. The first time I saw it Riona O’Connor said this with perhaps a little too much conviction, for a while I felt I believed her, even if Miriam didn’t. The second time Riona’s performance was much better, because it was less conviction and more apparent she was hiding something.

 

A quick bit of scene shifting, pulls some of the furniture into shape to represent the Church, with Fr Frank, played by Peter Basham present in robes. The religious Sheila arrives first, clutching the family bible. She is followed by Larry, and then Mrs O’Brien (holding Connor), then in come Dickie, Dymphna, and Orla. Presently the Hennessy’s also arrive, with Mrs Hennessy holding her grandson. Mrs O’Brien and Orla both wear headscarves tied in something like the sort of style Her Majesty The Queen sometimes wears them. One might also note that Orla’s stockings are thick like Mrs O’Brien’s. Whereas Miriam and Mrs Hennassy both have finer stockings, while Dymphna’s have seems (so are clearly nylons). Sheila of course wears white socks. As each member of the Company arrives in this scene they start to join in with the Hymn: Show Us Mercy. Louise Gold’s loud voice is particularly noticeable, especially as she is singing intentionally slightly off-key. Louise Gold is a fine singer, who is perfectly capable of being on key. It sounded like she was singing both stridently and off-key deliberately to suggest a character who would (a bit like Louise Plowright doing Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s Baroness Bomeburst with a speech impediment). In this particular instance this device worked rather well. It was a good subtle touch and I hope the rest of the audience realise it is intentional, though. The second time I saw it, I noticed she ramped up the volume of her Merman-style horn half-way through, I thought this helped a good deal in making the audience know the actress was doing it deliberately, to portray a character who sings off-key in church, with a booming voice.

 

As everyone leaves Church, some of them have a few words to say to the priest; or in Mrs Hennessy’s case to give him a cake,  a shop bought one, Mrs O’Brien had a few cutting words to say about that. Louise Gold has a knack for being able to deliver cutting acid dialogue well, and Bernie Gaughan’s writing has served her well in this respect. This worked well on both occasions, the second time it came across with more wit and the first with more acidity. This was a most bizarre scene, involving Larry lying on the floor with a pea-shooter or a catapult (the second time it was definitely a catapult, but I think it was a pea shooter the first time). Mrs O’Brien then decides (because Dymphna whispered a request to her) to clear the decks for Dickie and Dymphna by sending each of the family off on errands. Orla takes the hint quite soon and goes, sounding a bit angry. Larry and Sheila take some persuading. Finally Mrs O’Brien says that she will walk home by the canal with Connor. Dickie wants to go with her, but his mother insists he sees his girlfriend home. It gives Dymphna a chance to try, unsuccessfully, to set a date.  Back home Dickie laments Sounds Familiar, about the look of resignation his father had in his wedding photograph. It’s a beautiful Richard Rodgers style waltz. His daydreaming is interrupted by his mother’s voice, calling loudly, we hear her receding into the distance.

 

A moving interlude finds Mrs and Mr Hennessy, the latter played by Robert Gill, putting flowers on a dead child’s grave. Other People. This song reminded me a little of Jule Styne’s tune for Some People (though without the belting power of that song). The best thing about this number, is that it suits both Brenda Longman and Robert Gill’s abilities as singer-actors. They are a well matched pair.

 

Back in The O’Brien’s kitchen, while waiting for the paper, everyone is occupied with something. I particularly noticed Sheila standing on a stool, so her mother could attend to the hem of her dress, mending it with a needle and thread. It’s a nice little domestic touch, and I think the first time I’ve ever seen anyone having to act out sewing on stage actually with the props in their hands. (I’ve seen two people mime sewing in the Lost Musicals). How fitting it should be nimble fingered Louise Gold (incidentally she holds the needle in her left-hand). The newspaper arrives, Sheila reads it out, and is slow, prompting Mrs O’Brien to make a cutting remark about “I wouldn’t like to send you for the priest if I was dying.” Both households find their babies have made it through to the second round, a jubilant Mrs O’Brien executes a few steps of Irish dancing. Which was rather enjoyable, it seemed to add something to Louise Gold’s performance, at any rate, besides it’s always nice to see her dance (after all she was educated at Arts Ed) Now they have to describe something their baby can do. They all try to think of something. In the end Mrs O’Brien reluctantly agrees to use Orla’s idea “The nurses said they’d never heard a newborn laugh before”; Next Door’s Baby. This may be the title song, but I don’t recollect much about it, except that it involved everybody singing, often with their own little bits to sing or speak. The one person who did kind of stand out in it was Elinor Lawless, perhaps because she had the most distinctively individual lines to sing.

 

One of the O’Brien’s brings a message, to tell Mrs O’Brien that there’s a kid at the door saying Mrs O’Brien’s Aunt has been “took bad”, and she has to go to her. This prompts a cutting remark from Mrs O’Brien about what a time to choose. Orla remarks that when the great aunt eventually dies shell do it perfectly “She’s had enough rehearsal”. Mrs O’Brien comments that her Aunt will wear her out before she goes. The weather is bad, and everyone else seems to be out too. (Sheila has gone to mass, no one would leave Larry in charge, Dickie is also out) There’s only Orla left. Mrs O’Brien is reluctant to leave Orla to settle Connor, she says “You’ve never done it before, and there’s the song he likes”. But Orla insists “I can do it”. Mrs O’Brien leaves, calling instructions “He’ll want his favourite blanket.” The moment she is gone, Orla picks up the baby and her eyes shine with pleasure. She begins to sing Orla’s Lullaby. At this point, even if the audience had not guessed (and probably most of us at least suspected) we know, she is his mother. As Orla admits in Secrets.  The first act was a little long, but it is obvious it has to reach this particular point in the action before we can have an interval. It’s the logical place to put an interval.

 

During the interval the stagehands move the set around, so that now as the audience enter, the O’Brien’s kitchen is to our left and the Hennessy’s table and chairs to our right. Well this is theatre in the round. The path runs as before. The act starts with Dickie sitting on a bench. Orla comes up, with a paper bag, he forgot his sandwiches. Dickie sings about his childhood dream of being a Mountie, Red And Blue. Stephen Carlile, who until now had been very much there in the background, delivers a striking performance. Really very good, and all the more amazing given his training. He explains how he filled out the forms to emigrate, but lied about his age. His mother found out, and laughed at him. The first time round one really couldn’t help feeling bitterness at the woman for laughing at him. The second time round Louise’s portrayal of her character had been slightly different making the audience more sympathetic to her.

 

The next scene produces such a contrast, particularly the first time. But it doesn’t start off that way. In the kitchen, Mrs O’Brien is at the table, wearing glasses, with her accounts book, trying to make the figures add up. Curiously I noticed she held the pencil in her right hand. She puts the book and pencil down to peal potatoes with a knife, which she holds in her left. After this she goes to pick the accounts book and pencil up again, and on the first occasion for a moment, I think the actress almost went to hold the pencil in her left hand, but remembered just in time it was to be in her right. A very minor near slip, which few would have picked up on. However the second time they had changed this, with Sheila taking that pencil for her homework, meaning that Mrs O’Brien has to get another out of the pencil box for her accounts. That little extra piece of action creates a pause, long enough for the actress to remember which hand the character would use.  Meanwhile Dickie is reading, Orla is ironing, and Sheila who is doing her homework tries to get her mother or anyone to test her. They are all preoccupied. Dickie offers his mother some extra money, but she insists she can manage. The hot weather, and having to keep the windows shut (so the baby doesn’t get cold) is irritating everyone. Orla is concerned it is also affecting Connor, but Mrs O’Brien insists she knows best. The subject turns to her husband, Christy, who died some months ago. At various intervals during the play Mrs O’Brien has said “And we all know what killed him”, usually in a cold cutting tone of voice. However, not this time. Shelia says she’s forgetting what Daddy looked like, and is told she’s the image of him, she asks if Connor is too. Orla refers to him as Daddy too, which her mother forbids her to do. Orla insists he wouldn’t have let her be treated the way she is. Her mother is really angry at the way Orla presumes to know how he would have behaved, with the result that this time when she says “And we all know what killed him”, she shouts it out and stamps her foot (I think it was her right). In fact on the first occasion she didn’t just stamp it, the Arts Educational trained performer flap-stamps it. I thought it a shame she didn’t do this second time round. The row makes Sheila curious, and to stop her asking awkward questions Dickie agrees to hear her homework, on the Seven Deadly Sins, which she has to know by tomorrow. Sheila has to recite the sins and the punishments associated with each. When she gets to lust she says “I don’t really know what that means”, to which her mother says that it’s something a child shouldn’t understand. The whole section on the Seven Deadly Sins was funny, even if it did keep making me think of The Dark Crystal, though somehow I didn’t notice them mention gluttony; could it be that that point coincided with Louise being particularly noticeable, with her clever hands, ironic or what. Even Dickie’s interventions are not entirely successful, and in the end Shelia is sent off on an errand, to get her out of the way. Eventually the others depart to, leaving Mrs O’Brien alone on the stage, and at this she delves into her memory of her husband.. As she goes into memory, she sings My Christy; that’s one of the advantages of Music Theatre as opposed to straight drama, one can use a song to move time or go into flash back or some such. Her voice sounds more beautiful on this number, although her diction is still somewhat weak. In the middle of the song, a gentleman, Mr O’Brien, played by an uncredited Stephen Carlile. The pair of them ballroom dance together. Both move nicely, though Louise had the slightly neater footwork (with her training that’s no surprise). It’s always good to see her given an opportunity for a bit of dancing, however slight. It’s a good number, and Louise rather comes into her own with it.

 

.Out to get some air, at the bench Orla meets Miriam, who guesses that “You’re Connor’s mother”. Orla admits it, Secrets. Miriam suggests they should both run away to London together, with their babies. They could work shifts (take it in turns to look after the children) and be themselves there.

 

And then the next scene is a complete contrast, Mr and Mrs Hennessy are out, Miriam actually opens the door to Conrad (her husband), who explains his Passion for her, despite her protests. This is one of the darkest songs in the piece; with Conrad describing his violence as “passion”. It ends with him hitting Miriam so hard she falls to the floor, he tells her she’s going to come back to him.

 

Back at the O’Brien’s we hear an off-stage shriek, from Dymphna, as various family members come tumbling through the door into the kitchen. The first time for a moment Mrs O’Brien seems almost tender, asking “What happened” and whether Dymphna has been hurt. The second time it seemed much less momentary, and much more one of concern. It turns out her shriek was one of joy, she and Dickie are finally properly engaged and have set a date for the wedding. She shows off her ring while Dickie reprises Sounds Familiar, but his performance is eclipsed by the quartet which follows it.

 

Somehow, Orla and Mrs O’Brien are alone in the kitchen, meanwhile at the Hennessy’s Mrs Hennessy and Miriam are also alone. Mrs O’Brien, sinks into her husband’s armchair, with an exclamation, along the lines of “Who’d be a mother”. Funnily enough something about her appearance, with her narrow eyes and red hair, not to mention her extraordinary stage presence seemed, momentarily to be akin to another actress, from a generation earlier (a certain lady in Mike Leigh’s first film). Then she starts to sing What Mother’s Do, one by one the other three join in. First Mrs Hennessy (though Brenda Longman is very much eclipsed vocally, particularly by Louise Gold) then Miriam (Emily Sills does do a fine job of standing up to Louise Gold’s pipes and presence), and finally Orla, where again Riona O’Connor at least stands up to that stage presence. Lyrically, and musically, I thought this one of the best songs in the show, admittedly that may be partly because it was pretty well performed. The opening lyrics, the ones sung by Mrs O’Brien, also made me think of a fascinating excerpt of a lyric I once read (in Colin Chambers’ book on Unity Theatre) about Mothers-in-Law, which ran “But if we try to help them we’re called interfering folk”.  The sentiments expressed seemed somewhat similar, or am I reading too much into that, given the performer? Anyway, the quartet as a whole works pretty well, although one performance (Ms Longman)’s was a little weaker than the rest, but it was generally good.

 

Aunty Maggie is taken ill, yet again, and the family have to go to attend to her, but it’s really too hot to take Connor out, so Orla suggests she should be left to mind him, her mother tells her “He’s been fed and watered”, and to get on with the ironing “keep you out of trouble”. The baby show is the following day, and Connor’s outfit for it has to be ironed. Mrs O’Brien seems to be in a bit of a flap, looking for her handbag, which she put on a chair, and her hat, which is on her head, there was a nice touch when she reached up to realise it was there.  In her distraction she also picks up Connor’s bonnet and take it with her. Once the family are gone, Orla goes over to the pram, picks up the bundle and exits.

 

On the path, Orla enters with the bundle in the crook of her left arm and a suitcase in her right hand. She stands waiting, presently Miriam arrives, without her bundle, she says she is going back to her husband, and they are making a fresh start. She gives Orla her own savings, to help her get away. Miriam exits, leaving Orla alone, scared, and free, Hello Me. With this song Riona O’Connor, who throughout has shown herself to be a pretty good actress, one able, more or less to compete with Louise’s stage presence, now comes into her own. She sings well, and puts a lot of feeling into the song, which expresses her characters indecision, should she stay with her family or go to London, alone. A ferryman, played by Robert Gill, comes along, and tells her to hurry if she wants to catch the ferry, eventually he picks up her suitcase to help her, and so she departs.

 

The final scene is back in the O’Brien’s Kitchen, Mrs O’Brien enters, much like she did at the beginning of the play, gets out her dough and begins to kneed it, reprising Hold It All Together. Dickie, enters with “a letter from London, but she says she’s not interested in any letter from London. Dickie makes her a cup of tea “just the way you like it”, but, the first time with harsh bitterness in her voice she says “I’ll have it later”. The second time she’d changed it to a tone of more sadness than harshness. Eventually he gives up and departs. Once he’s gone she moves the tea cup to the side (or sink), and then, having put the dough away, her nimble fingers quickly scrunch the letter, dropping it back on the table as she exits and the piece ends.

 

I can’t bring myself to call this piece of music theatre a show, or even a musical. It’s really more like a play with music (a bit like Ragtime). Therefore it might be quite suitable for people who like to see plays, but don’t generally want to see all singing all dancing Musical Comedy. Nevertheless the songs form a most important part of the piece, they allow it to move in time, transcend the two houses, and above all give the characters an opportunity to express their inner feelings to the audience (without the need for Shakespearian soliloquies). The whole piece is a snapshot of two families’ lives, with some characters (such as Mrs O’Brien) ending stuck where they were at the beginning, while others (like Orla) have managed to move on. The snapshot style has some passing similarities to such wonderful works as Sunday In The Park With George, and, Six Pictures Of Lee Miller. Musically some people might liken it to Sondheim, but (with the possible exception of the lullabies) only in so far as the style of the piece is very much Music Theatre, not Musical Comedy, and Kurt Weill and Stephen Sondheim are two of the best known composers in that style (but if you really want a British equivalent to Sondheim you have to hear Jason Carr). I felt that Matthew Strachen’s score was really more like Lynn Arhens & Stephen Flaterly’s work (such as Ragtime), or perhaps Howard Goodall, there were also passing similarities to Richard Rodgers, and to Kander & Ebb (the latter sound being no stranger to The Orange Tree). A good score needs to be well played, and this one was brilliantly played on the keyboard by David Randall. Of course a decent score is one thing. However in good musical theatre the script is also very important. Many a reasonable score (for example Kath Gotts’s Bad Girls - The Musical) has been spoilt by a poor libretto. While Bernie Gaughan’s libretto isn’t quite in the same league as such geniuses as Edward Kemp or Catherine Johnson, it’s by no means bad. It’s orders of magnitude better than say the work of Maureen Chadwick and Ann McManus. For a start the plot actually hangs together and flows convincingly; and the dialogue quite memorable. Of course it helps that all the actors deliver the dialogue pretty well (even Catherine Johnson’s writing can be ruined by poor delivery). There does however appear to be a weakness in some of the characterisation, and I wasn’t quite sure whether that was due to the writing, the directing or the acting. It could have been all three. On a positive note, the piece is a very busy production, there characters, are very often doing something. I liked the busyness. Yes perhaps sometimes it might be a little distracting, but generally it added to the convincing atmosphere, and one never missed any really key moments in the plot because of action, though one might miss quite minor details. This is also Theatre-In-The-Round, so at any given position in the auditorium one would get a slightly different view of the play, that is another good reason for the busyness, there is always something to look at.

 I really liked that, because I felt it made the characters more real and believable, that is how a family would behave. I noticed that some characters had more action to do than others. Vincent Sheils and Louise Gold seemed to have the lions share, which perhaps demonstrates their capabilities as performers, for being able to handle this sort of thing. Both of them, I’ve no doubt would be excellent if The Orange Tree were to use them in one of its wonderful farces.

 

As for the actors themselves, well (apart from two characters who I don’t know who played them because they weren’t credited) what can I say about the ones who were:  Peter Basham as Father Frank and Conrad has the smallest part, nevertheless his performance of Passion is memorable. Conrad comes across as a sometimes charming but really thoroughly dislikeable person (from a woman’s point of view), and one is not convinced he would change without help. Robert Gill is an experienced actor who makes the most of both Mr Hennessy and Uncle Willie. As the former, given that he is paired with Brenda Longman that isn’t too difficult, but in the latter he has a harder job, having to compete with Louise Gold for the audience’s attention. However, he is an experienced actor, who rises well to this challenge. He is clearly is quite a versatile actor, as his extensive stage credits demonstrate. He has an ability to tune his performance to meet his co-stars abilities. (Perhaps not to quite the same extent that people like Henry Goodman and Louise Plowright can do that, but nevertheless he does it pretty well). Elinor Lawless is clearly a good comedy actress, her resume makes that quite clear. She was entirely satisfactory in her character, and well perhaps one day she might make a good Adelaide in Guys And Dolls. Clare Louise Connolly turned out an amazing performance as Shelia, a small girl who is very keen to become a nun. Honestly I’ve only come across one other grown actress (namely Rebecca Leonie) who could play a child so convincingly. Also playing a child, is Vincent Shiels, with him one is rather more aware that he is a grown actor playing the part of a boy, nevertheless he plays it very well, and seems to have a lot of fun with the part. He also does sterling, often very funny, work as a scene shifter,; somehow contriving to do this in character. Brenda Longman is the least effective performer. She is a perfectly fine supporting actress, there is nothing inherently wrong with her performance, she just gets a bit overshadowed. She is supposed to be a matriarch too, but does not quite come across as one, well not with Louise Gold in the lead. This is particularly apparent during their duet Just Grand. It’s supposed to be a competitive duet. But competing with Louise Gold is a difficult task. There aren’t many performers who can really match Louise Gold for shear stage presence. The only ones I can think of who can truly match her on stage (that I’ve seen) are Henry Goodman and Louise Plowright, and possibly Scarlett Strallen. Nevertheless there are a good number of others who can come close, at least for the duration of a scene or song. But really to play this role as proper rival matriarch would have taken someone like Darlene Johnson, for instance. Fringe theatre really doesn’t have the luxury of being able to cast everything perfectly, sometimes it is necessary to make do. It is possible Louise could help Brenda’s performance by toning down her own during that duet. But I really hope she doesn’t do that, because if she did then Louise Gold would not do her own performance and characterisation justice, and things would become rather dull. I saw Louise tone her performance right down in The Cherry Orchard (she sat on any trait that could identify her as her mother’s daughter), and it got tediously boring. For the sake of putting the song and the show across, it is better to leave things as they are and let the puppeteer overshadow Brenda a little. In the overall shape of the piece it doesn’t matter that much; and well Brenda isn’t a bad performer by any means. Meanwhile Emily Stills does a pretty good job of making herself noticed, and some of her lines stand out. She captures her character very well, a breezy but betrayed woman. The added bonus is that her singing on three very different pretty good songs, is just right on all three instances. In the quartet What Mother’s Do she comes across as vocally quite strong, which is definitely a bonus. Stephen Carlile manages to spend much of the first act being a fairly good actor, but nothing special. In the second act however, particularly with the song Red And Blue, he proves himself to be excellent, creating a character with whom the audience has a surprising amount of sympathy, given where he trained; though the nature of his training seems to turn out better males than females. Sometimes one comes across performers who trained at institutions one has never heard of, who turn out to be brilliant, one such is Riona O’Connor produces a pretty incredible performance. If she keeps this up she’s really got potential as an actress. Yes the first time there were a few places, notably her reactions during Miriam’s song Secrets where her performance doesn’t quite add up. For example she delivered the line “Me I’m an open book” with slightly too much conviction, we’re not really mean to believe it, are we? But she is inexperienced, and the second time she did this much better From the moment her eyes light up as she launches into the act one conclusion, Orla’s Lullaby, she displays growing confidence; and during act two she delivers a performance striking in one so new. And somehow manages not to be overshadowed by anyone, even Louise Gold! That is quite a feat. It is as though she grows in understanding and eventually stands up to her fellow actress, a development that almost mirrors the action of the plot, whereby Orla eventually stands up to Mrs O’Brien, by leaving.

 

The “lynchpin” of the drama, to quote the programme notes, is Mrs O’Brien. The first time I saw it I couldn’t help thinking it’s hard to have a show where the central character is such a nasty one, with practically no, redeeming features. A character the audience has little or no sympathy for. It was very difficult to tell how much of this was down to Bernie Gaughan’s writing, Paul Prescott’s direction, or Louise Gold’s acting. It could well be a mixture of all three. It’s clear from the programme notes that Bernie Gaughan intended the character to be a hard as nails woman, but would it have been possible to put in anything during Act 1 that might have given the audience some understanding of the character, instead of just monster. It’s apparent that Mrs O’Brien does love Connor, could she have shown a little more tenderness during Mrs O’Brien’s Lullaby? The only time we, the audience, see a real glimmer of humanity in the character is in Act 2, when she sings My Christy; and then later when alone she gets Connor’s bonnet out of her apron. As an actress Louise Gold is capable of showing great depths of character, she demonstrated it admirably when she played Phyllis in Follies, and before that as Tanya in Mamma Mia. There was even depth and feeling to her performance of Baroness Bomeburst in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang; while as for Miss Andrew in Mary Poppins, she knew what she was doing with the character and acted with such conviction the audience could tell the character was driven by something (a kind of idealism perhaps) even if we didn’t know precisely what. Yet at that matinee afternoon there was something not quite there. Was it that she had not quite nailed the character? Or was it trying to learn the choreography of her part? Or trying to create a completely new role (rather than a ‘take-over job’)? Or was it simply being unaccustomed to performing in a fringe venue, in the round, where performers are so close to the audience?  Rather different to the distant glamour of the West End. Nevertheless she didn’t do a bad performance, by any means. It was actually pretty good. She’s too fine an actress to turn out a truly bad performance, anyway. It’s simply a feeling that she may be capable of doing even better. The second time I saw it, she proved that she can indeed do it better. This time she made the character much more likeable in Act 1. There was less harshness. In fact at one point I even worried she’d now gone too far that way, with the result that initially she didn’t appear quite harsh enough to Orla to make some of that character’s laments quite so believable. However, Louise Gold is a clever actress and she clearly knows what she is trying to do. By giving the character a pleasanter edge in Act 1 she made the audience warm to her, and as she is the leading lady this is highly effective into making us tune into the place, and follow her character. Then in Act 2, possible driven by the heat, we see the other harsher side to her, particularly directed at Orla, making it quite convincing that Orla would take the decision to leave. Finally at the end of the show there was a real sadness, at Orla having taken Connor away from her. The first time the character was stuck both physically and mentally in the same place all the way through. However the second time, although her character is still stuck in the same physical place, Louise had found a way to make her take an emotional journey. Could she go even further with it? I wonder, would it be possible for her to bring a little more harshness towards Orla (but only Orla) back into Act 1, while for the most part retaining the more sympathetic portrayal she has developed? Or would having to switch very quickly between nasty and nice be too much? Judging by how quickly she can switch singing styles I think it’s possible she might be able to do it. But if not, I preferred the way she did it the second time I saw the show.  In a way perhaps the part doesn’t entirely do her justice as an actress. However, the part itself requires a clever actress of her calibre to do it justice. So she’s good for the role, even if it isn’t necessarily so good for her. It’s certainly a challenging role for her, and she is rising to that challenge.  In recent years, in particular, this delightful actress keeps being cast as undesirable monstrous women. This is the third one she’s done in a row!  It might make a nice change to see her do something pleasant sometime. But if monsters are becoming a habit, could someone please consider her for Mama Rose in Gypsy? her vocal prowess would suit Jule Styne’s score wonderfully, and she is a leading lady. Talking of leading ladies. In terms of carrying the action of the show, like a good leading lady should, in Next Door’s Baby Louise Gold is rather good, as one would expect. She has very nimble fingers, and is therefore excellent with props. It is lovely to see her get such a terrific opportunity to exercise that skill. This did however produce one interesting little detail. Mrs O’Brien appears to be portrayed as a natural left-hander whose writing hand was switched at school. As this piece is set in Ireland in the 1950s, and Mrs O’Brien would presumably have grown up in the 1920s and 30s, it seems quite possible that would have happened. Then this is fringe theatre, the actors are sometimes only a foot or two away from the audience. This means we can see their body language, particularly their facial expressions extremely clearly (well as it s theatre-in-the-round not everyone can see everything, but more or less). Not all actors make good use of this, however, Louise Gold is a very expressive sort of performer, and makes excellent use of facial expressions, and indeed body language overall to convey a whole lot more than mere words ever could (a grin here, a twitch of the eye, a shrug of the shoulders, a hard stare). One of the greatest joys of having her perform in a fringe theatre, is that we, the audience get to enjoy this element of her tremendous talent. Somewhere during Act 2, there was a moment where she gave one of the others, I think it might have been Orla such a look that well one just understood the definition of the phrase “if looks could kill”, that was one that would. The other great advantage of fringe theatre is that because the venues are so small they are usually unmiked. The Orange Tree is one such, and it’s a real joy to hear the raw power of the performers’ voices, particularly Louise Gold’s gorgeously loud brassy pipes without the artificiality of microphones. Ms Gold also has an extraordinary stage presence, some actors may have been a little overshadowed by this, but overall it really doesn’t matter, because it jolly well helps to establish her character as a ruling matriarch. It also helps her to carry the show. Has The Orange Tree ever witnessed a stage presence quite like this before? Well I don’t know for sure (as I didn’t see the shows), but I think that once or twice (in the old room above the pub) it almost certainly has, does anyone remember Marina in the 1981 production of Uncle Vanya?

 

Overall I’m very glad to have seen this bizarre piece of music theatre. I hope it finds its feet and has a future as a musical. It’s so good to see The Orange Tree helping to develop new British music theatre, by actually commissioning the piece in the first place. This is also very much a community theatre, with affordable ticket prices, and a dedication to both new works and the rediscovery of long forgotten, and in some cases never performed works. It likes to call itself West London’s Pocket National Theatre”. Well let’s not forget that The National Theatre itself started in an innovative coffee house, called The Old Vic, serving the community of South London, and later (with the addition of Sadlers Wells) North London. It was one of those theatres which made its name staging unusual productions, that would never otherwise have been seen. The other great form of community theatre of course, back in the 1930s was the Workers Movements (the movements that gave us both Stratford East – which is still going, and Unity Theatre (London) – sadly long gone, though its theatrical legacies live on). Posh theatre serving tourists and the idle rich is all very well, but how much loyalty is there in that, and does that really help theatre as an art form grow and prosper? No it’s the community theatre for the people where the genuine art grows. Good fringe theatres like The Orange Tree are a necessity. They are both an experimental space and a training ground for the theatre of the future. In particular they are a very important training ground for writers and directors. These days when it costs a lot to mount shows in the West End, few producers (except perhaps Sonia Friedman) would take a chance on untried artistic talent. In addition the costs involved in mounting anything in the commercial West End also means that ticket prices have to be high, with the result that audiences will tend to play it safe and only fork out for things they know they will enjoy (such as stage adaptations of successful films, or shows based around a famous pop group’s back catalogue). It’s on the fringe, where tickets cost less, that theatregoers will take chances and go and see quirky new work, even when they have no idea whether they will like it. Louise Gold may be a magnificent singer-actress in big blockbuster West End musicals. And she is certainly an asset to them. Over the course of a nearly thirty five year career to date she has frequently proven herself an innovative and adventurous performer (both in acting and puppetry) capable of taking on challenging roles in untried work. An experience that has helped to make her the unique individual that she is. Yet for the last five years, at least, she appears to have played it safe in take-over jobs in established shows. It’s just grand to see her trying to get back to the roots of innovation slumming on the fringe in Richmond Upon Thames, a town she last played eleven years ago, it’s good to have her back. We get a whole other view of her talent, by seeing it in close up at one of our finest community theatres. The first time I saw the show, I felt that it may not be one of the greatest performances of her career, but it is by no means terrible either. And as I unwittingly saw this show still at it’s preview stage (only the second performance), perhaps I judged it a little harshly. I hoped that as the run progresses the show and its actors would settle more comfortably into their roles. The second time I saw it was much improved. Riona had made a few changes to her performance. While Louise had found a way to play the character that seems to make it work for her. Could she do it even better? Who knows. Anyway I am very glad to have seen this interesting new production; and particularly to have witnessed Louise Gold appearing on the West London fringe. If you like watching challenging performances, new music theatre scores and good thought-provoking theatre this is worth seeing.

 

 

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