The Orchestra – Omnibus Theatre, London

Writer: Jean Anouilh

Director: Kristine Landon-Smith

Reviewer: Gus Mitchell

Jean Anouilh is probably best known for his adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone, and his own shortish play The Orchestra, as well as his many other works, are otherwise very little known or performed in the English-speaking world. The fact of a dramatist usually neglected in the English language and an interesting opening scenario seemed to promise much, but the Omnibus Theatre’s new revival proved a weak let-down.

Spent entirely in the company of one hack provincial orchestra (entirely female but for the male piano player) in a French spa town just after the Second World War, we the audience observe the increasingly catty and exposed orchestral players in between droning their way through salon tunes for the benefit of their invisible card-playing audience. This kind of character-focused intensity can hold great promise (Annie Baker’s The Flick is a recent example) which is why it is such a shame that Anouilh’s script seems happy to waste it on such uninteresting people.

The first violin and cellist spar unconvincingly and bafflingly over the male pianist, who is such a limp ragdoll of a character that when he later turns out to be a strange kind of pervert one only scratches one’s head. Less senior string players talk about caring for sick mothers or chasing different kinds of men, but it all feels terribly insubstantial and plodding, with very little comedy coming through, at least in this particular translation by Jeremy Sams.

There are also some production issues. The musical interludes (inimitably French background tunes of intentionally heart-stopping dullness) are, of course, pre-recorded (on something that sounds very much like the gratingly fake strings of Sibelius 5 composing software). This would be fine, were it not that each piece is played in full, which often goes on for over two minutes. If Anouilh intended for the play to stop so that dull music could be given a hearing, without any irony or dialogue to counter it, then I can only question what he was thinking of. Any director’s decision to indulge this quirk of the script, if it is such, is a questionable one. The international cast’s accents are often difficult to discern, and while there are some strong moments, with Amanda Osborne as a general standout, most of the cast simply do not seem to have taken sufficient hold of their characters to make whatever Anouilh may have put into them shine with any real conviction or life.

The Orchestra is a fairly short piece, under an hour and could perhaps have been paired with another to make some kind of larger statement on Anouilh’s work or worldview. As it is, a sense of general dissatisfaction is what we leave with.

Runs until 17 Feb 2019 | Image: Jacob Malinski. 

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