Orphans - Review by Simon Jenner

Gary Owen’s Violence and Son is just one of his plays showing a profound kinship with Dennis Kelly. It’s an apt summary of their respective progeny. It’s difficult to think of a play of theirs where violence doesn’t smash into an audience’s solar plexus.

Kelly’s achieved an outstanding hit this year with his Royal Court Girls & Boys – even more shocking than his 2009 Orphans. In nine years he’s gained even more cunning, craft and conviction. Orphans also unpeels an act of violence, though by stripping back and resolving, rather than straight narrating. It takes more risks and being a (mainly) three­ hander, not a solo performance, owns a visceral dynamic. In the right hands, Kelly’s mastery of dialogue is thrilling.

No pressure then for debut director Charly Sommers, known as actor and playwright (in the NVT shorts series of 2017). She’s blessed with Tim McQuillen­Wright’s set constructed for the NVT Studio by Simon Glazier and team, a sweep of diagonals, all diamonds to crack diamonds. A table and two chairs in dove grey flare a white and yellow suggestion of food, white wine; a light­grey rhomboid beneath is environed by deeper grey. Behind, there’s a skew­mounted rectangular white frame where shadows of chairs and table suggest themselves. After the interval it’s stripped to reveal an identical black diptych of chairs with table, at a steep­raked angle. Which then falls into total shadow. Another chair’s fetched. Strat Mastoris suffuses dinner lighting with sheer blackouts. Saira Yates’ costumes ensure downbeat t­shirts for the men; only Helen the single female protagonist asserts sartorial killer dress: one black number and grey­green robe.

Jonathan Howlett appeared just once here in 1984, the only one of the trio to do so. His Liam is joined by Stuart Curlett making his stage debut as Danny, and Cerys Knighton’s Helen.Liam’s arrived at his sister Helen’s house in a t­shirt dripping with blood. He’s not quite articulate, blathering about helping a man who’s been hurt. He suffers from some distress and it seems learning disability. Helen’s rational liberal husband Danny tries to pin down what’s happening and the fiercely loyal Helen rounds on him, rebuking his probing questions however delicately phrased. Like, can we help this injured man Liam held? Helen gets at the truth Danny doesn’t quite want to see, calling Danny then later Liam a piece of shit.

Overlapping dialogue, elliptical phrases and incomplete statements are kerned here to an inch of comprehension. It’s beyond Pinter or Mamet since it’s not indicative of a hidden narrative of which these are disjecta membra. It’s happening, out of control and this is dialogue spinning like plates; some smash. This cast outstandingly make them sing too. The ensemble is extraordinarily tight; pauses too are on point.

Helen’s threats of violence match anything she suspects in her brother. If Danny calls the police she threatens to terminate her second pregnancy. Kelly’s excellent at showing Helen’s manipulative use of language: ’No I’m not saying don’t call’ morphs to threaten Danny with what she’ll do if he does. Desperately thinking about how to contain Liam’s latest run­in – it transpires she lied to the police about another incident when Danny was away – her ferocity knows few
bounds.

The clue’s in the title. Their parents dying in a fire (typically violent, no explanation) Helen stayed with Liam although she had been offered an attractive family. At the time Liam violently assaulted another boy, Brian; they lost their only good school. Later it transpires why he did this, what Helen lost.

Liam’s life revolves around Helen and Danny whom he says he’d ‘do anything for’. He expresses love mawkishly, at the edge of saying. His axes of inarticulate hang­dog and cloying fantasy of a close family are riven by what he in fact does. He needs Helen close. You might feel it’s merely incestuous desperation. Helen’s all he’s got. But deeper than that, violence is all he possesses.

Helen will do anything for Liam, lie to the police, caring nothing for any victim. ‘He’s nothing to do with us.’ Kelly depicts primal, selfish clan loyalties. Outside too, she suggests, the world is more violent than now; Danny’s been assaulted for some dim reason. Liam claims he’s acted from loyalty.

Stripped back to truth, as Danny finally asserts it, backed by Helen worried at the DNA trail, Liam admits what we suspected plainly. But is he, and who is the man he assaults, still alive?Liam and Danny between them depict Liam’s Nazi­memorabilia­obsessed friend Ian. There’s a connection. And Danny’s asked to make a decision.

Here’s where Kelly’s psychology fails. He suggests we’ve all got thuggery, even racist abuse, deeply coiled. I’m not entirely convinced of certain actions at this point, and sketched a mental alternative before it unfolded. But the
outfall’s utterly convincing and the cast know no bounds in depicting it. There’s three volte­faces from Danny, and one each from Helen when she learns more truth and Liam, when co­operation isn’t forthcoming.

Howlett’s Liam is outstandingly good in his halted and lame speech gnarled with a simmering fury just beneath. Everything in him’s bunched, verbally and physically. Like Greek tragedy, he has a coil. The others are more than foils to this, and stopping Liam’s full unleashing – both himself and what’s he brought to them – becomes a panicky priority. He has to be the key to the work. Kelly’s wholly convincing portrayal of a pathologically­motivated man, Liam’s use of broken
half­sentences and mewling retreats is beautifully written. Howlett seizes on it.

Knighton’s hardly less remarkable. Her taut body, snappy lines and range, from explosive temper to wheedling, echoes her brother. Kelly makes her far more articulate, suggesting something mentally distressed in Liam. Knighton’s intensity is like Medea’s. She’s riveting as an unlikeable manipulative woman whose disdain for her husband suggests she married him to gain the professional liberal family life she missed out on; and is redeemed by the dawning realisation of whom she should love, perhaps does. But will she be too late? She takes redemptive action anyway.

It’s difficult to credit this is Curlett’s stage debut as Danny. Whilst his speech patterns are normative – typically liberal for much of the play – he too is forced to enter pitch black territory and recount horrors with a mind suddenly clenched against itself. It’s a remarkable performance, increasingly so when Danny’s range is widened and his own dark is allowed play. We should see more of him – and clearly Knighton and Howlett. Sommers too doesn’t direct in the least like
a debut creative. As an experienced actor she clearly values letting the cast find their own rhythms, then tautening.

This is an ensemble – and production – of distinction. There’s also a surprise addition to the cast. But you’ll have to see that. Another Kelly masterstroke handled with delicacy and aplomb. It might be nearly sold out but queue for returns if you possibly can.

Review by Simon Jenner - Previously published in Fringe Review