Review Orpheus Descending by Tennessee Williams, Theatre Clwyd and Menier Chocolate Factory by Karis Alaina

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

Tamara Harvey  – hot off her Olivier award for Home I’m Darling’ could have played safe – and ran a nice little Ayckbourn – instead she plucked a little known Tennessee Williams play that was in the main considered a flop, set in a convenience store in the Deep South of America –  no doubt she could have had her West End and Broadway, Tony Award winning designer Jonathan Fensom create a replica 1950’s American store, instead it appears she asked him to design as little as they could get away with… this could look like an ‘A’ level workshop production – a set from what’s lying around – on the surface minimal direction and caricatured characters – and in principle that is what this is – but I mean that as an incredible compliment.

Some of the best work I have seen has been from peers in workshops. The actors are able to use the words, their skill and their craft and although the characters are caricatures these actors did not act them in this way.  By being basic, the set took no focus away from the actors – yet gave them enough to do on stage, the master piece of the design was the hues of the lighting by Tim Mascall and the use of smoke – which was only noticeable by it’s absence . Finally the lack of direction – I find two reasons for noting the lack of direction one because the actors look awkward or lost on set and direction is missing – or direction is lacking because it is perfect and you feel as though you have just watched characters as the author intended. There was no apparent direction present in this play, it was perfection.

It took me a good 10 minutes to acclimatise to the tone of the play – the accents (although spot on) took some adjusting too – and a lot of information was thrust upon you from the start – this is not a play you can attend – to just half watch and unwind at the end of a long day – it is not light relief – although peppered with humours moments – in the main it is an intense reflection into the complex nature of humanity….. or lack of….

We hear  about the owners of the store (Lady and Jabe)  through the brilliant gossipy narrative of  Belulah Binnings, the main form of the light relief comes from Catrin Aaron (previous TC production  –  Little Voice) – before we even meet the couple the past 15 years of their unhappy marriage is laid bare in 10 minutes and secrets that have been hidden are revealed to the audience hinting this play will not end well. This is a clever use of narrative instantly we take sides, and as an audience we are willing Lady to know the truth.

The first part is in the main tone setting – and it sizzles with the introduction of snake skin wearing, guitar playing Val – the beautiful Seth Numrich – who honestly if he had walked off set and asked me to run away with – I would have! He wooed every woman, possibly every man in the theatre – especially when he played his guitar and sang. His character I was unsure of except until the very end – he claimed to be on a journey to reform from his past – which kept coming to taunt him in the form of the flesh baring makeup wearing Carol Cutere ( Jemima Rooper)– who  created as much hysteria in a room as the local black man, as we learn during this production. The play had a large cast who all had an important role to play – no role was small – and all expertly executed. However the main hook of the play was the heat between Lady (Hattie Morahan) and Val (Numrich) they share a lot of stage time, long looks, desire and the occasion interruption from the phone or from above – leave every word dripping with sexual tension or hidden connotation to an unhappy past (on both parts) There is a delightful scene near the end of the second half when both are truly happy and the audience is lost in that moment with them which enables the audience to be as shocked by what happens next as the Lady and Val.

Do not come to watch this play if you are after a giggle with the girls and want to see the Full Monty – watch this play because you love theatre, because you want to know what clever set design is, because you want to know how a good actor can be a great actor. Come and watch this play if you like tension and drama  – if you are a theatre student of any description you need to see this play before it heads to the West End.

I have struggled with why the play wasn’t a hit when first produced –   but my knowledge of Williams is not strong enough to judge – however if I had to comment I think Carol (Roopers) Character could be the answer – addressing racism in 1950’s America was risky but a white women defending black men in 1950’s America was perhaps too big a pill to swallow . Thankfully Sami Ibrahim and Carys Lewis (TC’s residents in writing) have brought a forgotten gem back to life and the Williams play will finally get the credit it deserves.

A brutal insight to self righteous 1950’s slavery, intensely acted, perfectly directed and dripping with sexual tension.

Orpheus Descending plays at Theatr Clwyd, Mold from 15 April – 27 April 2019. It then plays at Menier Chocolate Factory, London from 9 May – 6 July.

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One thought on “Review Orpheus Descending by Tennessee Williams, Theatre Clwyd and Menier Chocolate Factory by Karis Alaina”

  1. I enjoyed reading this review because you have helped me understand why I liked it so much. I’ve also seen it performed at the Royal Exchange Manchester. The emotional impact of Theatr Clywd’s production is the one that will remain with me. Everything about it felt just right.

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