A poetic play about families and pain leaves you guessing till the last, says Liz Vercoe
I do wonder sometimes where the occasionally gently dozing-off audiences of The Orange Tree have gone. I hope they've found a cosy billet with comforting drama somewhere. Or maybe they are sitting unrecognisably bolt upright and electrified by the new selection of plays in the current season.
This theatre no longer promises a couple of hours of easily digested viewing, and the 95 minutes, no interval, of The Distance is no exception. It's described as "a new play" by award-winning Alice Birch but what this means, the programme explains, is that it is a reworked version of her very first play, conceived as a student while at Exeter University. Six years on and pregnant she feels she has more to bring to the original idea.
Overall it's an exploration of family relationships, and the way we create familiar sagas when we get together, as well as of the forces that can shake or smash both. And it keeps you gripped, if initially mystified, by the pace of its circuitous dialogue.
We first meet, in a beachside house undergoing renovation, a couple who appear weirdly disconnected. Whatever one says, the other seems to not understand. As if one is speaking Mandarin and the other Catalan. The only other conclusion to jump to is that one or both of them has (very) early onset dementia. From their parallel talk, where their words slip past each other's as if you are rapidly switching TV channels with the remote control, we deduce they have a history together and it seems to be a special day.
Soon they are joined by a very wet, pregnant woman and later her muddy partner who is clearly not expected nor welcome. Birch tantalises the audience into wanting to know what is happening and why, and what prevents irritation at not immediately finding out is her poetic, almost musical, dialogue which passes line after line from one character to the next for completion. Under the tight direction of adventurous David Mercatali, the cast of four ¬– Lorna Browne and Paul Rattray as the first couple and Yolanda Kettle and Paul Hickey as the second – demonstrates vital and immaculate timing in these exchanges. And it's a neat way of underlining how in families we can finish each other's stories and even sentences.
But after a few more of these "I get it" light bulbs going on, you do rather feel that Birch, with studenty enthusiasm at realising the clever things she can do with dialogue and its structure, has crammed too many "underlinings" into her play. Still, this is a small criticism of someone who even at such a young age had so much understanding of what makes us tick.
Sanity and revelation comes in the shape of Paul Hickey's character, Simon. Grounded and intelligent he attempts to wield middle-class good manners as a flaming sword to protect his girlfriend and unborn child. Even the way he strokes the surface of the lunch table as if smoothing creases from linen epitomises politeness desperately being used to mask nerves. And the perfect delivery of his oh-so-normal lines against the staccato of the others is a little like tuning into the BBC world service through the radio static in some far-flung and alien corner of the world.
But it is the speech by Paul Rattray's disintegrating Teddy that ultimately tells all and moves you to tears.
Little Light runs until March 7. For tickets, numbered seating and 20% off post-show drinks are now offered, call the Box Office on 020 8940 3633 or www.orangetreetheatre.co.uk
February 13, 2015