Monday, 12 October 2009

Alison's House - Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond

Alison's House
Writer: Susan Glaspell
Director: Jo Combes
Reviewer: Ann Bawtree

Acting,what a way to earn a living! Why do they do it? In the case of this play they put themselves nightly through such angst. At the little Orange Tree Theatre “in the round” at Richmond never can actors have been subject to such scrutiny since the days when travelling players performed on the backs of wagons in the village square. It must necessitate a very special sort of talent.

The author has based her Pulitzer prize-winning play on the reclusive life of Emily Dickinson. The Alison of the title is a poet who has died some eighteen years earlier, since when her room has been kept as a shrine to her memory by her family, especially her sister, Agatha (Georgine Anderson). She herself is now retreating into dementia and needs to be cared for by her long suffering brother, John, played with great sympathy by Christopher Ravenscroft. Her excessive reluctance to leave the house seems unreasonable until all is explained at the end of the play when family secrets are revealed.

Dudley Hinton and Mark Arends give us two brothers, Ted and Eben, each unlikeable in their own way, although Eben has the better excuse, being married to the waspish Louise of Emma Pallant. Elsa, the ewe lamb turned black sheep, has a wonderful professional debut part, well played by GrĂ¡inne Keenan, lately graduated from from RADA.

Jennifer Higham plays Ann, the secretary whose significance to the family gradually developes and Nicholas Gadd is the ever so slightly pushy reporter. Another veteran actress, Diana Payan, plays Jennie the maid and both she and Georgine Anderson demonstrate that there are worthwhile parts for actresses who are not twenty years old and stick thin. Keiron Jecchnis, who played the paranoid Pole in Ring of Truth demonstrates his versatility as the dreadful Mr Hodges and Catherine Harvey, also lately from a major role in the same play, is his complacent wife.

Directed by Jo Combes, this wordy play is never for one moment static and the set of designer Robyn Wilson is subtly rural American-Victorian with its simple yet comfortable furnishings and costumes of restrained fashionablilty except, that is, the bookmaker-check suit of Mr Hodges probably carefully selected by his wife.

Lighting is never easy for a period play which has to accommodate a sense of realism and yet enable the audience to see the action. Real candles in Act Two add greatly to the atmosphere and John Harris’s lighting is almost unnoticeably altered to good effect as is the oncoming dusk in Act One.

This play is enjoyably thought provoking and the suspense is maintained to the end. Anyone who enjoys Ibsen will appreciate this work.

Photos: Robert Day
Runs until 7th Nov
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