There are many reasons not to like the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond. It’s in Richmond for one thing. And it stages safe, solid productions designed to appeal to Richmond audiences. These tend to be done in period costume on naturalistic sets, which usually take an age to change between scenes, as there is always much twiddling with side-tables and crystal decanters and silverware. There's also a faintly irritating all-in-the-family taint to the productions too, which nearly always star Octavia Walters, daughter of the theatre’s founder and artistic director Sam Walters.
And yet, for all this, I feel considerable affection for the Orange Tree. It doesn’t tend to experiment or to surprise, but instead it does a particular thing and does it very well. In the main this means staging rarely performed plays with some kind of social weight to them. Last season was all about the work of GBS and his contemporaries, this season it’s a more loosely linked collection of plays by women dramatists.
The last thing I saw there was Daphne du Maurier’s The Years Between, perhaps not an amazing bit of writing, but still a gripping story, well-told, that questioned a woman’s position, both in the context of marriage and in society in general, in a manner that I found quite resonant.
The current production is Elizabeth Barker’s Chains was written in 1909 and is about duty and responsibility. It concerns Charley Wilson, a ‘quill-pusher’ in the City, who’s life is stirred up by the announcement of a colleague that he’s going to quit his steady job and chance his luck in Australia. Though Charley’s existence is one of hard graft and ceaseless routine, living from Sunday to Sunday, it takes his friend’s decision to really wake him up to how unhappy he is with his lot. His dilemma is reflected against that of his sister-in-law Maggie (played by – well fancy that – a certain Octavia Walters – who admittedly is pretty good in the role). Unlike Charley’s wife, who is an uncomplaining, eternally optimistic sort, her sister Maggie has fire inside her; though she is engaged to marry a wealthy man, and is, as a result, guaranteed a comfortable life, she burns to do something more, to see something more of the world – to live. She sympathises with Charley’s predicament and urges him to follow his instincts, despite the upset it might cause.
Much of the play focuses on Charley grappling with the decision to stay or to leave, to do what’s expected of him or to take a chance - to do ‘the done thing’ or the right thing - but though this eventually became a little repetitive, I loved the rather dark way Barker chooses to end things, twisting what should be a happy announcement into something far more ambiguous.
Though it was very Orange Tree - in every sense - this was a strong production, and it passed the crucial in-the-round test: despite the cosiness of the venue, the stately pacing of the drama and the average age of the audience, I didn’t spot a single sleeper – not always the case at this particular venue.