The three outstanding London theatres of 2007 have indubitably been the National, the Royal Court and the Orange Tree. The little Richmond venue under the perennial stewardship of Sam Walters is sometimes a touch cosy and suburban for my taste, and there’s always been an unmistakeable whiff of village hall and WI teatimes about both actors and audiences.
But the programme this year has been instructive, enjoyable and full of stunning and adventurous choices. Obviously, therefore, the theatre is facing an Arts Council cut of almost seventeen per cent in the latest round of scandalous announcements by the faceless, craven bureaucrats in Great Peter Street. Honestly, if and when the weather gets a bit warmer, I’m going to start marching in protest and breaking a few windows.
Who else but the Orange Tree is ever going to show us Fanny Burney’s 1802 play The Woman Hater, a convoluted but fascinating farcical comedy of a buffoonish misogynist Sir Roderick (“What needs a woman know but to sew a gown and make a pudding?”), rediscovered love, mistaken adultery, related rivals in romance and a wonderful old comic boot called Lady Smatter, continuously and hilariously alluding to an army of familiar and unfamiliar poets – Goldsmith, Gray, Otway, Rowe, Sappho and Shenstone for starters -- in a tangle of sagacious misquotation?
These two plum roles are occupied with fruity relish by Clive Francis as the apoplectic reactionary, a man spurned at the altar and gripped in a Jonsonian non-humour ever since; and by Auriol Smith, head bobbing gently like a cork on a placid lake as she counters each crisis and indeed conversation with a vacant expression of literary name-dropping.
Then there is wonderful Michael Elwyn, ranting histrionically as Lady Smatter’s brother, Wilmot, fresh from a supposed scandal in his marriage to Sir Roderick’s sister, Eleanora (whey-faced Joan Moon); and inspirationally cast Jennifer Higham as Miss Wilmot (revealed as the daughter of “other” parents) and Dudley Hinton as Young Waverley, denied access to the girl he loves and indeed the sitting room.
These two rebellious characters wear modern clothes – T-shirts and jeans, leather jackets – while the “society” majority are in period costumes.Sam Dowson’s design is witty and inventive, even as Walters’s production cracks on through some pretty tiresome developments; no better case is made for Burney as a “lost” dramatist – this is a world premiere! – than was made by A Busy Day in the West End seven years ago.
But it smacks of real and valuable talent and takes you into strange and distant worlds of social behaviour, historical upheavals and satire. And it’s a real feather in the cap of the increasingly essential Orange Tree.
- Michael Coveney