Next Door’s Baby
The Orange Tree,
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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 “