Choosing the play with which to launch your professional directing career is a tough challenge, but one faced every year by those on the Orange Tree’s well-regarded trainee scheme. The latest duo, Andy Brunskill and David Siebert, could not have gone for more different options.
Sing to Me Through Open Windows, by little known American playwright, Arthur Kopit, and Peter Shaffer’s short, The Private Ear, were written within three years of each other at the turn of the 1960s, but while one is a heavily figurative tale of lost innocence, the other is a chatter-heavy chamber comedy with a bitter twist in the tail.
The Kopit comes first in its full British premiere, immediately plunging us into the dreamlike world of ageing magician Ottoman Jud, his clown-like assistant Loveless, and Andrew, a little boy who visits their house in the middle of the woods. In the programme notes, Brunskill says he was drawn to Kopit for the playwright’s close attention to atmosphere and his direction certainly honours its abrupt turns from wistful lament to surreal, sexual circus and back again.
The play is an ambitious choice for an inexperienced director and sadly, one that doesn’t wholly come off. The characters are well-cast, in particular Paul O’Mahony, menacing as the Beckettian clown. But their interaction jars at times (confusing the sense that these are three parts of one person), as do the mood changes, not helped by an overload of musical cues. That said, Brunskill's production leaves you with a real sense of childhood lost, and a lingering grief for the magician packed away in his own box of tricks.
Switch to the second half and a shabby studio flat, in which shy office clerk Bob awaits the arrival of Doreen, a ‘goddess’ he has met at a recent Prom concert. Bob, a sensitive soul , unsure of anything apart from his love of classical music, has invited along his garrulous colleague Ted to help with the cooking and conversation and ... well, you can guess the outcome.
More than just a comedy of manners, Shaffer’s play is a study of ignorance and experience – both sexual and intellectual – subtly drawn out by David Siebert’s attention to detail and even direction of his cast. Ben Nathan is wonderfully gauche as Ted, Tam Williams a portrait of pained insecurity and Amy Neilson Smith convincing as the nervy pawn between them. On this evidence, the play deserves a full revival with its other half The Public Eye. And with all good luck, Siebert at the helm.