But in its authentic study of life among the lower middle-class suburban population in pre-First World War London, it deals as no play in my experience has ever dealt with the quotidian anxieties of “making ends meet” in the new commuter belt. As a documentary, it is fascinating. As a play, it rambles a little, but bristles with intelligence and sensitivity.
Auriol Smith’s production opens with a line of bowler-hatted clerks crossing the stage in a diagonal in step to some serial music that sounds suspiciously like Philip Glass. This proves a false overture to the more mundane level of conversation between Charley and Lily Wilson: “The day we lose the bathroom, Lil, I’m off to the colonies.”
Taking in lodgers is one way of paying the bills. But when the aptly named Fred Tenant (Ashley George) declares that he plans emigration to Australia, a whole can of worms is opened on the subject of getting out, getting by or simply getting swallowed up in the rat race. The sitting room of 55 Acacia Avenue becomes a theatre of heated debate and dangerous truth-telling.
Justin Avoth and Amy Noble as the Wilsons are yet further examples of this theatre’s talent-spotting proclivities. Both are perfect as the couple whose marriage could be undermined by material pressures. And when Olivia Waters breezes on as the spirited, tough-minded Maggie Massey, declaring that she’s entering a marriage only to get away from the shop she works in, feminist radicalism comes into play, too.
Maggie was an early triumph for Sybil Thorndike in the only previous London performance of the play in 1910. She and Lewis Casson toured to America on the strength of it. And Miss Waters conjures a world of fiery determination on a single line: “I don’t love Walter – only his house!”
Just when you think the play has exhausted its own theme, it splinters open in new social directions, with parlour songs at the Massey household – where Col Farrell and Gabrielle Lloyd are delightful as the old plumber and his wife – whispers of unplanned pregnancy and the price of itchy feet, or “the bug of getting out”.
The Orange Tree continues to act as a pocket National Theatre in brokering these productions, and one can only say all strength to their elbow. Next up is the British premiere of Fanny Burney’s 1802 play The Woman-Hater...what’s not to look forward to?
- Michael Coveney