Last Easter (Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond)

Posted: July 8, 2021 in Theatre

Writer: Bryony Lavery

Director: Tinuke Craig

⭐️⭐️⭐️💫

Theatre is always a collaborative effort. To some, it is also a matter of life and death. Bryony Lavery’s comedy Last Easter embraces these ideas and more in a story about a group of theatre folk who join forces as one of them becomes stricken by serious illness and embark on a sort of pilgrimage to Lourdes.

When June, a lighting designer, is diagnosed with stage two cancer, her friends gather round and panic: Leah is a props maker whose alter ego is a garish glove puppet; Gash, is a drag performer with an unsuitable joke for every occasion; and Joy is an actor who over-dramatises everything, particularly after a tipple or two. Their road trip to Southwest France does not come from religious conviction, but more from their desperation to try anything, with the bonus of enjoying a pleasant Easter break.

Naana Agyei-Ampadu’s June is the calm at the eye of a storm, stoically facing mortality, but willing to go along with her friends’ whims on the way. She endorses the writer’s point that those surrounding victims of illness can often be hit harder than the sufferers themselves. Leah (Jodie Jacobs) and Joy (Ellie Piercy) are panicky, while also preoccupied with their own developing relationship.

The main joy of this production is Peter Caulfield’s flamboyant and irrepressibly slutty Gash. With an armoury of dreadful jokes and classic songs from the 1940s, he brightens up scene after scene and keeps the play on course whenever it threatens to hit the rocks.

Just as Gash spits out one-line gags as a defence against hard realities, Lavery uses comedy to sweeten the bitter pills of the weighty themes of terminal illness, faith and euthanasia. Sometimes it feels as if she is buying cheap laughs to prevent the play from sinking and sometimes it feels as if the constant barrage of wisecracks is working contrary to the writer’s wish to draw us in emotionally. However, overall, the tricky balancing act is tackled with confidence.

Director Tinuke Craig gives her simply-stages in-the-round production pace and energy. The performance space at the Orange Tree is condensed even further by socially distanced seating and, for most of the 90-minute (plus interval) running time, the actors have just four swivelling chairs to work with, but Craig puts this to advantage in emphasising the closeness of the characters to each other. The outcome is only mildly challenging and thought-provoking, but consistently entertaining.

Performance date: 7 July 2021

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