Last week’s bumper week o’ theatre ended on a pleasant high. I was off to the Orange Tree, out in Richmond, for the first play in their new autumn season. I have a real soft spot for the Orange Tree. Their last season, composed of work by George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries, was genuinely fascinating and this new production of the The Years Between, a play by Daphne Du Maurier, was well chosen, echoing themes – about the shifting position of women in society in the late 19th and early 20th century – that had provided something of a spine for those previous productions.
Years is set during the Second World War and concerns a woman whose husband is missing in action, his plane was shot down over the sea and he is most likely dead. In his absence, his wife Diana sets about rebuilding and reshaping her life. Reluctantly she stands as a Member of Parliament in her husband’s stead and makes plans to marry another man. Three years pass before a phone call brings news that her husband is still alive and the play then focuses on how Diana deals with this fact and the knowledge that the life she has built in his absence will be irreparably changed.
The play makes it clear that her husband was a difficult and particular man before he went away, so when he returns, gaunt and weak, he is keen for everything to be as it once was. But, of course, this cannot be. Diana has grown in confidence during the intervening years, and her husband, Michael, comes back to a life – and wife – very distant and different from what he left behind.
Years is a compelling if not outstanding piece of writing, it doesn’t really have the macabre edge of du Maurier’s novels and stories (apparently she was drawing here on unhappiness in her own marriage plus a real event that happened near to where she lived in Cornwall) but, get this, I cared about the characters, I got caught up in these people’s lives in a way that just didn’t happen during, hmm, say, Awake and Sing! It helped that the acting was good, especially Mark Tandy as the twitchy, emotionally complex colonel.
This wasn’t an absolutely blow-you-away production but I enjoyed it more than anything else I’ve seen this week, despite – or perhaps – because of the Orange Tree’s quirks. Sets are usually cluttered with rugs, mahogany side tables, antimacassars and the like – they’re clearly not big fans of the minimalist approach to set design – and they take an absolute age shifting this stuff about between scenes. The theatre is also in-the-round so at least one pivotal moment is guaranteed to be obscured by the back of someone’s head, but the Orange Tree knows its strengths, it knows its core audience (older than me by a good few decades) and it does a certain kind of production very well indeed. Measure of quality at the Orange Tree? The number of people having a bit of a nap during the play (easy to ascertain given the layout) and, for once, I didn’t spot one lolling head.