Writer: Lyle Kessler
Director: Paul Tomlinson
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
Some plays refuse to fit into pigeonholes. American writer Lyle Kessler’s multiple award winner, first staged in 1983, defies expectations at all turns, taking in sickening violence, brutal bullying, incarceration and racism and leaving the audience laughing until it hurts. What about calling it the funniest tragedy in town?
The success of Paul Tomlinson’s revival owes much to an astonishing performance by Chris Pybus as Philip, the younger of adult orphaned brothers living in their parents’ house in Philadelphia. A prisoner in his own homedenied the education for which he craves, he leaps around like a cat, pops his head around corners and from behind furniture and dribbles like a baby when spoon-fed bouillabaisse. This young actor sometimes has the look of a new Stan Laurel, his gift for physical comedy being matched by his command of the pathos that is needed to underpin all great clowning. Phillip’s joy as he looks outside his “prison” window, clutching at a street map that he believes is showing him his position in the universe, tears at the heartstrings.
Alexander Neal also impresses greatly as older brother Treat, the provider for the family who goes out scavenging while regarding Philip as if a domestic pet, kept indoors by deceit and brute force. Treat’s outbursts of rage are terrifying and even when he is subdued and vulnerable, violence is simmering only just beneath the surface. We are left in no doubt that the fraternal relationship is built on mutual dependency, but the equilibrium is upset by the arrival of Harold, a gangster on the run from Chicago who is kidnapped for ransom by Treat.
Mitchell Mullen’s Harold is both a kindly uncle and a ruthless thug. He sets his sights on taming Treat and releasing Philip, using a combination of hugs and gifts, Treat receives designer suits and Philip yellow loafers; he just manages to squeeze his feet into them and then beams as if he is Cinderella winning her Prince. The play’s unorthodoxy keeps us on our toes, but it is the fascinating detail in Kessler’s writing that is most absorbing. He merges American popular culture with an absurdist vision, creating a surreal world in which Errol Flynn, The Price is Right and Hellman’s mayonnaise are jumbled together. Yet his key themes are rooted firmly in reality – the right of all human beings to freedom and education, the need of all human beings for kinship and affection.
There is often mayhem in the play, but Tomlinson keeps it well controlled and stages the comedy sequences with aplomb. The re-enactment of a reported incident on a bus involving Treat, with Philip standing in as a rude passenger, is an absolute riot. The production takes a little time to find its stride and its ending feels overcooked, but what lies between is crisp and assured, the rapid shifts in tone being judged to perfection.
Orphans has had top class productions on Broadway, in the West End and across the World, but it seems a fair bet that this small revival on the London fringe could stand proudly alongside any of them.
Runs until 5 March 2016 | Image: Richard Davenport