The Orphanarium of Erthing Worthing

Wed 26th – Sat 29th October 2011


Jack Belloli

at 03:31 on 27th Oct 2011



If the onstage orphanage that young Marcus found himself in was distinctly lacking in youthful raucousness, he should’ve looked to the audience. Then again, maybe he did. During an unfortunate bout of corpsing from other cast members, James Parris kept it together by shooting the audience a brief mock-stern glance. I don’t blame him. The cast were facing a crowd who whooped and roared in unexpected places, but let some of the better jokes go by with less fuss, making the whole experience of watching this play feel strangely out of sync.

However, this loss of sync isn’t just the audience’s fault. It’s not fair to expect a cast to be able to gauge an audience’s rhythms on their opening night, but, if you're putting on a play which promotes itself as written by ‘two of Cambridge’s biggest goofs’, you should expect big laughs and prepare accordingly – by not running pre-recorded interludes during the blackouts when an audience might justifiably be clapping over them or, more generally, by factoring time for audience responses into the pace of the play’s exchanges. Too often, the actors were willing to jump on to the next line, even after ad-libs that only seemed to exist for the laugh. Combine this with a dodgy pace and volume of delivery, and a willingness to privilege physical comedy over the text that it accompanied, and I felt that I was always losing track of things. What exactly had the kleptomaniac ex-gypsy Gladys (Jennie King) said she’d done to hedgehogs? Sorry, I was too busy watching her stumble around hilariously like a demented Kathryn Hunter in an anorak.

Moments like this felt endemic in a play that was content to take every moment as it came and be less than the sum of its parts. It’s utterly shameless about having no plot: almost everything’s revealed in the publicity material, and the one big twist is lazy, tries to be self-conscious about it, and just ends up smug. What plot there is effectively consists of running jokes: the orphans are all elderly, and have a habit of telling their life-stories; the man who wants to close the orphanage loves closing everything else, sparking off every imaginable joke about things being open and closed this side of citing Umberto Eco. The latter gag scores a few perfect bulls’ eyes, but inevitably wears thin. The former doesn’t quite work because the orphans’ characters largely don’t depend on them being elderly (the ‘French exchange orphan’, for example), and not enough was physically done to establish a generation gap. Despite his flat cap and walking stick, Andrew Brock never really looked over 80 and, while Parris was just about appropriately naive for 17, neither of the colleagues whom he’s supposedly working for (Will Chappell and Ailis Creavin) seemed any more mature: Chappell’s only character note seems to have been ‘eccentric’.

That said, what Chappell managed to achieve with ‘eccentric’ alone was worth watching, and he’s a reminder that this play *is* blessed with good comic actors and some great moments. There’s a glorious reveal involving a chef’s hat and a French stick about which I’ll say no more (kudos here to the lighting designer, incidentally, who makes both this sequence and the play’s opening stand out nicely). There’s also a well-executed geriatric box step, which was the moment when I realised that the writers weren’t caring about plot, and that maybe I shouldn’t either. But no, I’m sorry, I should. Good plot structure is important even in comedy, especially in comedy – it’s what keeps an audience’s attention when the jokes inevitably drift into the patterns they’ve all heard before in Footlights Smokers. Very few new full-length comedies in Cambridge manage to get plot nailed: the notable exception that I’ve seen is Armageddapocalypse, and even that fell apart a bit in its Edinburgh rewrite.

Maybe I’m being too harsh on this play. It’s not as good as it really ought to be, based on its premise and the talent working on it, but this may be good enough for you and it was (clearly) good enough for last night’s audience. It’s got some quite funny people being quite funny, and they should get funnier as the week progresses. I’d make a joke about the debate being open, but I think we’re all too grown-up for that.


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