Distant voices and darkness visible

The latest of Rodney Ackland's plays to be revived shows why he deserves his renaissance
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The Independent Culture

The latest play to be revived at Richmond's Orange Tree theatre was first staged in 1932, but the director Ellie Jones finds it bang up to date. "It's got amazingly modern themes in it - an unmarried mother with children by different fathers, a vegetarian teenager who wants to change the world. When I was at university I lived in a house like the one in the play, in which everyone is trying to find his way."

The seekers are characters in Strange Orchestra, by Rodney Ackland (1908-90), a playwright whose reputation has recently begun to recover from the obscurity in which his dramas of discontent have been mired for several decades, beginning with the National's staging of Absolute Hell in 1989.

He was overlooked partly because of the personal dislike he inspired with his irresponsibility, coldness and flagrant homosexuality, the last of which put off such important theatre figures as Harold Hobson. The dramatist Michael Hastings recalled hearing of "incidents in which the penniless playwright offered astonished cab drivers a hasty exchange of body fluids in lieu of the fare".

As Britain tried to adapt to its dwindling role in the world after the First World War, Ackland's dramatic exhortations to confront pain and despair in order to know oneself and lead an honest life were out of step. One character in Strange Orchestra goes blind, but gains inner peace because, says Jones, "she finally sees the world for what it is.

Apart from Vera (Isha Benison), who rents out rooms in her Chelsea flat, the cast of Strange Orchestra are young people who, says Jones, "affect the music of each other's lives". Some devote themselves to passion. One youth says: "It's no good falling in love. After all, if you're never particularly happy, you can never be particularly miserable." Others believe in hard work and honesty, while one character is a thief. They are all surveyed by bohemian Vera, who, when a girl becomes indignant about starving, sighs and says, "Oh, isn't poverty devastating. But it's no good minding about it. It's all vibrations and karma."

The dialogue is often affected and camp, but Jones says she won't be changing any of the dated slang or the phrases used to placate the censor, such as Vera's advice to her daughters to "be kissed - properly", to get their vibrations right. "I'm inclined not to," says Jones, "because Rodney's not around to ask. I think it's not hard to get the meaning across."

The Orange Tree's theatre-in-the-round might be thought an obstacle to the mood of claustrophobia, but Jones says that the presence of the audience will contribute to the uncomfortable feeling that one is never alone. And given Vera's deathless comment about emotional resilience, it's not surprising that Bloomsbury has inspired the decor. When the love of her life left her, recalls Vera, "I didn't say life was at an end. I said, I've got myself. Nothing anyone can do to me matters. And then I got the idea of painting the furniture."

Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond (020-8940 3633) to 20 March