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Michael Coveney: All changes in Kingston, Richmond and steamy Soho

Two founding artistic directors - Sam Walters at the Orange Tree and Stephen Unwin at ETT - are about to step down

By • London

It was good last night to see Stephen Unwin, shortly to leave the Rose in Kingston, and Sam Walters, shortly to leave the nearby Orange Tree in Richmond, hugger mugger at the final preview of Unwin's fine co-production with English Touring Theatre of Ibsen's Ghosts. They were comparing notes and, like everyone else, speculating as to who might succeed not them, but Nick Hytner at the National.

Kelly Hunter in <i>Ghosts</i>
Kelly Hunter in Ghosts
No advance on the usual suspects, any more than either has a clue about who might succeed them in their posts. Unwin, who's 53, reckons he has one more big job left in him, but is already full booked next year with an opera and a couple of theatre productions. And he's planning to write at least three books and do some more teaching in America.

Walters, two decades older, is in more wistful mood, sorry but resigned to be abandoning his baby - he formed the Orange Tree in a light-filled room above the great Young's pub that still thrives opposite Richmond Station 40 years ago, deep in the heart of rugger bugger land, and successfully effected the transition across the road to the converted building that now houses the cosy fringe theatre. He's played a great innings, especially of late with his rediscovery of so many lost Edwardian gems.

And of course Unwin can be proud not only of his six years at the Rose - a difficult theatre, but one he's programmed with energy and aplomb - but of English Touring Theatre, which he founded 21 years ago. I saw the very first production, Alan Cumming's electrifying and very funny Hamlet, on tour in Winchester.

And now he's teamed up again with Kelly Hunter as Mrs Alving, an actress who gave such great performances for him and ETT as Nora in A Doll's House and Rosalind in As You Like It. Hunter, who combines the ferocity of Fiona Shaw with the grace and beauty of Cate Blanchett, is an actress I sometimes feel we don't see nearly enough of, though she has lately been terrific with the RSC, especially as Hermione in The Winter's Tale with Greg Hicks.

On the train back to town with colleagues Sam Marlowe of The Times and Maxie Szalwinska of the Sunday Times, I was ruminating on the way certain theatres flash on and off our critical radar. There were years on end when I never went near the Orange Tree; but it's now one of my regular haunts. Going to the Rose is frankly much harder work, for me at least, than it is hopping on to the North London line at the top of my road and pitching up at Sam's place.

But making the expedition is all part of the fun of theatre-going. It was a lovely autumn late afternoon on the river in Kingston yesterday, and I made time to stroll along the towpath before diving into Carluccio's for a pre-show supper. There I found historian Michele Brandreth (she also "manages" her husband Gyles, no mean task) with Oscar Wilde's grandson, Merlin Holland, also going to Ghosts. Merlin was his usual calm and collected self, even though he opens the Oldie-sponsored Soho Literary Festival tonight - in the Soho Theatre - with a talk about the Betrayal of Oscar Wilde, and he's joined on stage by David Hare and Rupert Everett.

Now, there's another theatre it's sometimes tricky to keep track of - the Soho - but for different reasons. The turnover is phenomenal, often three shows a night, and it's sometimes difficult to winkle out the drama among all the stand-up comedy and off-the-wall cabaret. The place is like a perennial Edinburgh Fringe, and I sort of prefer my Edinburgh Fringe in Edinburgh, and just for a couple of weeks, thank you.

Still, I did, as it happens, drop by the Soho on Monday night for a script-in-hand performance of a short play that has won this year's Soho Young Writers Award, Gemma Copping's In Your Image. Gemma is a third year student at the University of Northampton (I didn't even know there was one) and has been attending the Saturday morning writers' labs the Soho runs for budding playwrights and comedians.

Her play is a striking two-hander for an incestuous brother and sister played out both in the present tense and in flashback six years ago, when they were schoolchildren. It's tense and touching, dark and disturbing at the same time, though it was hard to see from the fine performances by Angela Terence and Jordan Milfsud how exactly the time-scale switches could be managed in a fully staged production. It all happens very quickly; Copping probably needs to write more "play" around it, more characters, more speeches.

I only say this because, inevitably, my thoughts strayed to the more exemplary plays of tragic sibling entanglement, John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's A Whore, and John Osborne's Under Plain Cover. The first is a well-known Jacobean masterpiece, but the second, less well known, places the "secret" incest in the context of media prurience and intrusion; I wonder how well it would stand up today?

Tags: Michael CoveneySoho TheatreOrange TreeEnglish Touring Theatre


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