Technically, there wasn’t anything that was wrong about Orphans: the cast was sensational, as were effects, and the two were pulled together under Georgia Bruce’s imaginative direction. But I came out of the Pilch feeling vaguely dissatisfied, and I’m still finding it hard to articulate why that was. Since I can’t find fault with either cast or crew in this production, I guess I have to blame Dennis Kelly’s play itself.
It began as an interesting exploration of our immediate reactions to violence, when a nice normal couple’s evening-in is ruined by the entry of their blood spattered brother. But it rapidly descended, I thought, into sensationalism. The vague presence of a neo-nazi neighbour/collector of machetes and a severed hand from the Congo, seemed to be stretching Kelly’s discussion of a human inclination towards violence just a bit.
That being said, Orphans still made for thrilling watching. I particularly enjoyed the expert efforts of lighting and sound designers, who maintained the play’s tension, when it might otherwise have been broken between scenes. An opening sequence with flashing lights, blaring music, and frozen actors was a stroke of genius. Bruce’s daringness to prolong moments like this one, to leave her actors staring at their audience or the set to be empty for just longer than could be comfortable, gave a stylistic quality to the play that made sense of its fanciful plot.
And, of course, the play would have achieved none of its impact without the tremendous skill of its cast. There was a chemistry between the three actors – Cassian Bilton, Calam Lynch, and Mary Higgins – who gave space to each other, and allowed Kelly’s complex power play to come through. The chief interest of the play arises in the different combinations of characters we watch on stage. All three actors were versatile enough to release aspects of their characterisation gradually, as these different relationships unfold. Higgins was particularly compelling: of the three characters, hers was the most purely believable, and that has to be testament to her confidence in committing to the role. She pulled off with ease the accent, mannerisms and psychology of Helen.
In the end, then, I felt like the Orphans team were better than their material. A sleekness in every aspect of the production was striking, and put together, they delivered an experience that could overwrite my reserves about Kelly’s script. Great performance; shame about the play.