For all the eloquent pleas, nothing can speak louder in support of Paul Miller’s Orange Tree keeping its public funding than the quality and variety of recent productions. Here again, we have an imaginative new work, lacking obvious commercial appeal but perfect for the theatre space, being given an immaculate production. If its writer, Alice Birch, goes on to fulfil her obvious potential, this premiere of her debut play could well be looked back on as quite a landmark. Birch delves into the fertile territory of dysfunctional family life in a play that is easier to admire or be intrigued by than to like. Clarissa (Yolanda Kettle) travels from London to visit her sister Alison (Lorna Brown) who lives with her partner Teddy (Paul Rattray) on the Devon coast. A meal is carefully planned, adhering to family rituals and the three quickly begin to pick away at barely healed wounds from the past until they are fully re-opened. Birch represents with considerable insight the ways in which family members (or groups of friends for that matter), who reconvene after time apart, always relate the same stories from their shared history and always home in on things that give each other the most embarrassment or pain. The arrival of Simon (Paul Hickey), Clarissa’s new partner, gives an outsider’s perspective on proceedings that often seem bizarre or surreal. What is most interesting in Birch’s writing is the way in which she uses language to evoke moods and tensions – ranging from short, staccato exchanges when characters are pushing their own agendas oblivious of each other, to long, lyrical passages such as Teddy’s emotional heart pouring which ends the play. The actors in David Mercatali’s tight production are all tuned in perfectly to the flow and rhythm of the dialogue, giving the play a terrifying grip as it slowly reveals its back story. Offering the characters no sight of redemption, Birch’s harsh and bruising writing often results in uncomfortable viewing, but nonetheless this production is fascinating.
Performance date: 20 February 2015