Orange Tree Theatre Autumn 2007
This adventurous and never disappointing suburban theatre continues its occasional policy of rediscovering lost plays of a hundred years ago and presenting them in polished, atmospheric and inventive productions that theatres with far greater resources could envy. (Are you listening, National Theatre?)
Chains, written in 1909 by the for-all-practical-purposes-forgotten Elizabeth Baker, turns out to be a Problem Play with something important to say and powerful way of saying it.
Is it a masterpiece? Perhaps not. Is it at least as good as any of the other plays being written around the same time? Absolutely, and sincere thanks to the Orange Tree for letting us see it.
Baker's subject is the life of clerks, City workers at the bottom of the ladder, who in her time spent their days and their lives transcribing records or entering figures into ledger books. (Today's equivalents are chained to computers, mindlessly typing in data for hours on end.)
Such men, and their families, lived in a kind of limbo, by definition middle class - they were not labourers or tradesmen - but earning less than most labourers and tradesmen.
In an irony modern audiences can recognise, the most affluent character in the play is a retired plumber.
Baker's central character is a married clerk only vaguely aware that he's unhappy until a friend, a fellow clerk, announces that he's chucking it all to seek his fortune in Australia.
Suddenly everything in the married man's life is up for grabs as the extent of his deep dissatisfaction and hunger for more hits him.
But of course he's too conventional at heart to drop everything and run, and so the play becomes a series of tentative expressions of his thoughts or open debates with those around him.
Virtually all of them assume the single guy is mad and the married man soft-headed to express any admiration or envy. Work is supposed to be boring, they assure him, and people just don't do that sort of thing.
The only partial sympathy comes from his sister-in-law, who sees a reflection of herself in him, and realises she was about to marry a man she didn't love, just to escape her boring job as a shopgirl.
Will he quit his job, deposit his wife with her parents until he can send for her, and run off to Australia, and if he does, won't he just be the same little man there? Or has he so internalised the values of his world that he won't be able to do it, however great his unhappiness?
Baker makes the question matter, and makes the process of answering it dramatic and engrossing. And this production, artfully and sensitively directed by Auriol Smith, makes it come fully alive.
In the large cast, Justin Avoth draws us into the man who is struggling to imagine the unimaginable, while Amy Noble keeps his totally uncomprehending wife from being either fool or villain and Octavia Walters conveys the warmth and pain of the sister.
As is always the case at the Orange Tree, the design and staging (by Sam Dowson) belie the limited space and budget, creating an absorbing reality.
And when was the last time you saw a set change inspire spontaneous applause from an audience? I'm not sure I ever have, but I joined in when director Smith choreographed a transition that was not only efficient but sustained the mood and reality of the play.
The Orange Tree is in Richmond, as little as 15 minutes from Waterloo (or quicker to get to than some West End theatres). Oh, and their next production, in December, will be the world premiere of a play written in 1802!
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Review of Chains - Orange Tree Theatre 2007