Review: The Orchestra at Omnibus Theatre

The show must go on… but at what cost? In Jean Anouilh’s The Orchestra, set just after World War II, petty in-fighting and lingering suspicions between the members of an orchestra in a small French spa town contrast sharply with their jaunty repertoire. Under the watchful eye of the manager, they must play on despite mounting tensions, uncomfortable revelations, and an unexpected climax to the evening’s entertainment.

Photo credit: Jacob Malinski

Set in real time, the 50-minute play alternates between musical interludes and the snatches of conversation in between, and sometimes during, the performances. From these we learn that leader Mme. Hortense (Amanda Osborne) and cellist Suzanne (Stefania Licari) are love rivals, fighting inexplicably over the orchestra’s meek pianist – and sole male – M. Leon (Pedro Casarin); violinists Patricia (Luna Dai) and Pamela (Sarah Waddell) clash over their very different views on sex and relationships; and flautist Leona (Jessica Hulme) is forced to sit and gasp appreciatively as Ermeline (Charlotte Laporte) talks at length about her marital problems. And all the while, the manager (Toph Enany) prowls in and out of the theatre – having also made his presence felt in the bar before the show – as a constant reminder of the pressure to paste on a smile and perform.

There’s an undercurrent of dark humour in Anouilh’s text, translated by Jeremy Sams, though it’s more of the satirical than the laugh out loud variety. Bickering and breakdowns are delivered with conviction by the internationally diverse cast, with Amanda Osborne particularly enjoyable as she tries to keep the group upbeat and focused on the task at hand. While the other characters’ conversations establish a backdrop of ongoing frustration with their own lives, the love triangle that connects Mme. Hortense with Stefania Licari’s melodramatic Suzanne and Pedro Casarin’s perpetually flustered M. Leon is more immediate and explosive, providing some drama and preventing the play from becoming too static.

Photo credit: Jacob Malinski

Unfortunately the musical scenes in Kristine Landon-Smith’s production – with the exception of the final one – don’t hold our attention in the same way, and this frequent loss of engagement means the play never quite takes off. The cast do a convincing job of miming along with the recorded soundtrack, but besides a few sideways glances and the odd bit of dialogue, there’s often not that much going on. Perhaps this is deliberate, to emphasise the divide between the players’ professional and personal demeanours; that certainly comes across very effectively. But it does mean that after a while – each piece is a good couple of minutes – the audience is left with not much to look at, the cheerful tunes we’re listening to (composed by Felix Cross) already having been dismissed by members of the orchestra themselves as little more than background music for a polite but indifferent audience.

Most of us have, at some point, had to put aside workplace squabbles and present a united front in the name of professionalism. Anouilh’s play presents a heightened version of that scenario, taking it to absurd lengths and setting it in a very particular time and place, but it remains enjoyably relatable – and this production, while not perfect, is a welcome revival.

The Orchestra is at the Omnibus Theatre until 17th February.


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Review: Blood Wedding at Omnibus Theatre

Federico García Lorca’s rural tragedy Blood Wedding gets a distinctly urban makeover in George Richmond-Scott’s powerful new adaptation. The production moves the action to modern day London, which allows it to touch on topical issues like Brexit and knife crime – but by keeping the characters Spanish, it doesn’t stray too far from the play’s roots, and the second act in particular (the third in Lorca’s text) retains very effectively the other-worldly atmosphere of the original.

The story centres around three Spanish families. As the widowed Mother (Maria de Lima) struggles to come to terms with the forthcoming marriage of her only Son (Federico Trujillo), the Bride (Racheal Ofori) wrestles with her passion for old flame Leo (Ash Rizi). He’s now unhappily married to her cousin, the Wife (Miztli Rose Neville), and also happens to be a member of the family that murdered the Mother’s husband. When all the characters are brought together at the wedding celebrations, a tragic and violent chain of events is set in motion from which nobody will escape unscathed.

Federico Trujillo and Racheal Ofori (Bride and Groom) low res. pic credit Nick Arthur Daniel
Photo credit: Nick Arthur Daniel

While the first act draws us into the family drama, the second, much shorter act has a very different style, as the characters become the playthings of forces far more powerful than themselves. Here the Moon, played by Yorgos Karamalegos as a sinuous and sinister figure, stalks the city streets, where he’s joined by Death in the form of a homeless woman (Maria de Lima) and together the two conspire to ensure the final confrontation takes place. The stark contrast in tone, which encompasses everything from language to physical style to lighting and sound, makes these final brutal scenes feel almost dream-like in comparison to the very naturalistic opening act.

George Richmond-Scott has, for the most part, remained true to Lorca’s plot – albeit with a few characters cut – but updated it for the 21st century. So a horse becomes a motorbike, and a vineyard turns into a restaurant; there are frequent references to the impact of Brexit and the possibility of returning home to Spain. Though this inevitably means a little of the poetry is lost, there are still moments where Lorca’s familiar words shine through, such as in the Mother’s obsessive horror of knives (which, ironically, could have been written yesterday) and in the Bride’s final passionate plea for, if not forgiveness, then at least understanding. His presence is also strongly felt in Camilla Mathias’ haunting live music, which, as with the rest of the play, offers an original take on cante jondo, the traditional folk music that played such an important part in Lorca’s life and work.

Camilla Mathias and Maria de Lima (Friend and Mother) low res PIC CREDIT Nick Arthur Daniel
Photo credit: Nick Arthur Daniel

In a play that places a strong emphasis on the role of women, Maria de Lima stands out with her performance as the Mother. At first easy to dismiss as a bossy, overprotective matriarch – almost, at certain moments, a comic figure – she ultimately becomes the emotional heart of the play, and her final scene is almost unbearable to watch in its tragic intensity. Racheal Ofori and Miztli Rose Neville are similarly impressive as the Bride and the Wife, who are both trapped into unwanted marriages by the pressure of family and society to secure their futures, but who deal with their situation in quite different ways.

The tragic conclusion of Blood Wedding – which was inspired by real events – serves as a powerful reminder of the futility of violence, whether in 1930s Spain (Lorca himself was executed by Nationalist forces at the start of the Spanish Civil War, when he was just 38 years old) or in 21st century London, where knife crime continues to increase at alarming rates. As we watch the surviving characters grieve, we can’t help but be struck by the pointlessness of the rivalry, social ambition and deception that have laid the foundations for so much devastating loss. In this respect, the play adapts very well to its new time period and physical setting – even though that may tell us more about the unchanging nature of humanity than we really want to know.

Blood Wedding is at the Omnibus Theatre until 23rd September.


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Review: The Yellow Wallpaper at the Omnibus Theatre

Adapted by Ruby Lawrence from a short story written in 1892 by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper is an unsettling portrayal of a woman suffering from depression after the birth of her daughter. Separated from her baby and spirited away to the country by her husband John, Alice (Gemma Yates-Round) finds herself increasingly disturbed by one room in particular, believing she can see a woman moving behind the sickly yellow wallpaper.

Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli

Gilman, who was advised in 1887 to manage her own depression by having “but two hours’ intellectual life a day” and giving up writing altogether, wrote the story to explore the damaging effects of the treatment imposed on women by men. (She even sent a copy to her doctor, and claimed he later confided to friends that he had changed his methods after reading it.) Lawrence’s adaptation goes a step further, hinting at a more sinister purpose behind Alice’s incarceration. The well-meaning but misguided doctor husband of Gilman’s story becomes two separate characters – albeit both played by the same actor (Charles Warner) – and with the addition of housekeeper Nancy, who’s recruited by the doctor, we begin to feel a creeping sense of conspiracy.

This is reinforced by our own bond with Alice, which is established early on as she directly addresses us, confiding her hopes and fears for her future relationship with her daughter Violet, and later makes us complicit in her efforts to rebel against her treatment. We also see everything she sees; the yellow walls of the deceptively simple set designed by Mayou Trikerioti really do change significantly in appearance under Clancy Flynn’s lighting, and stretch in undeniably sinister fashion to allow glimpses of a figure pressing through from the other side. The fact that we share this vision suggests it isn’t only Alice’s paranoia, and perhaps there really are other forces at work.

Gemma Yates-Round gives an excellent performance as Alice; over the course of 70 minutes, we can see her gradually unravelling before our eyes from the poised, intelligent young woman who first meets the doctor to discuss her five-month pregnancy to the dishevelled figure obsessively clawing at the yellow walls. Meanwhile Charles Warner plays every other character – or rather he plays “Not-Alice”, leaving the true identity and even existence of Alice’s husband, doctor and housekeeper open to interpretation. This ambiguity calls for a subtlety in the performance which Warner successfully captures, simultaneously keeping the characters individual enough that we can differentiate between them, but similar enough that they could feasibly all merge into one.

Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli

Despite the strong performances, however, and an atmosphere of growing suspense effectively created by director Dave Spencer, the layers of ambiguity added to Gilman’s story for this adaptation mean the play at times feels overcomplicated, and leaves us with a frustrating multitude of possible interpretations of what’s really going on. Things are further confused by the addition of a fairy tale composed by Alice for her daughter, an act of rebellion in defiance of the others’ attempts to keep her from writing. This takes the plot away from the original text, and then ends abruptly as the play reaches its climax, with Alice so intent on passing on her story that the woman behind the wallpaper is left feeling like an afterthought. While all this certainly makes for a meaty post-show debate, for those who like their stories to have a beginning, middle and end the play may prove frustratingly open-ended.

The Yellow Wallpaper is at the Omnibus Theatre until 24th June.


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