Mamet vs Churchill at The Orange Tree Theatre

Rebecca Pownall, David Gooderson, Jonathan Christie, Ben Onwukwe and Lydia Larson. Photo by Robert Day.

Rebecca Pownall, David Gooderson, Jonathan Christie, Ben Onwukwe and Lydia Larson in The After Dinner Joke. Photo by Robert Day.

A pair of unusual and rarely-seen plays by heavyweight writers David Mamet and Caryl Churchill make up this double-bill designed to showcase the talents of two up-and-coming directors at the Orange Tree Theatre.

The successful Trainee Director’s Scheme has been running here for a few years now and provided a launch-pad for several top theatre directors, so the pairing represents more than just a revival of old curios. And the directorial approaches, as well as the two playlets themselves, are binary opposites, so there’s plenty for the audience to chew over.

Lewis Gray tackles Squirrels, a surreal three-hander written by Mamet in 1974. It concerns the pains and pleasures of collaborative writing with David Mallinson as a crotchety author who employs a nerdy assistant (Peter McGovern) to help him with his latest opus. This revolves around an incident on a park bench: squirrel bites man, or is it perhaps, man bitten by squirrel? The two writers crunch through endless variations on the theme, slowly going mad as they realise there is no ideal version of this — or indeed any — story. And while they get lost in the wordplay, a cleaning lady (Janet Spencer Turner) interrupts and quickly proves that she is the genuine literary talent in the building. It’s a cartoonish, navel-gazing piece that, for better or worse, contains the great Mamet ticks of strung-out macho conflict and gnomic phrase-making. Gray’s treatment is simple, bold and confident with two desks facing off as the poets duel. There is minimal fuss and movement with the focus instead on comic timing and flow. Gray brings out three fine performances from his actors – with Mallinson in particularly commanding form. A bit too static at times, fans of loquacious absurdism will nevertheless find much to enjoy here.

Sophie Boyce has the trickier task of staging Churchill’s 1974 teleplay, The After Dinner Joke. With over 40 characters and constantly changing scenes and sets, the emphasis here is on shepherding the actors smoothly through the loose tale of a girl who quits her day job to do good in the world. Boyce is a decent ringmaster, employing light and sound effectively and exploiting all the possibilities for interesting exits and entrances that this tiny theatre offers. Unfortunately, the play itself is dated — an overly earnest lecture on the pros and cons of charity. And despite all the tricks Boyce employs, the message quickly starts to grate. A more carefully-chosen play would have served this young and evidently imaginative director much better.

Squirrels/The After Dinner Joke are on at the Orange Tree Theatre until 7 June 2014. Londonist saw this play on a complimentary ticket.

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