Strange Orchestra, Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

A girl who hasn't been "properly kissed"; a girl told that she will soon go blind; a young man hanging about in his dressing-gown and sock-suspenders, strumming a ukelele - Rodney Ackland's Strange Orchestra (1932) is full of locutions and situations that at first seem hopelessly antique. But in Ellie Jones's sensitive revival, the play conveys a frustration and unease that an audience of today will find eerily familiar.

Presiding, usually horizontally, over a Pimlico flat whose lodgers are waiting either for a publisher to take their novel or a producer to make them a star, Vera Lyndon spends the day in layers of repulsive undergarments, her hair the nest of some extinct bird. (Ishia Bennison nobly forswears any chance to make herself attractive or her character ingratiating.) But Vera is more than a bohemian ratbag - while she may prattle about "vibrations" and seem indifferent to collecting the rent, she has a sharp eye for deceit, and realises that a certain newcomer is trouble. Why, then, let him stay? He's "a beautiful young man".

It's lines like that, and the mixture of archness and flamboyance in much of the dialogue, that make one feel at times that the housemates are meant to be all male (Ackland himself was gay, and didn't care who knew it). But the play is ultimately convincing as a portrait of young people who, for all their shrieks and games and love affairs, are terrified of the future. They talk matter-of-factly about "the next war", and insist on facing "real life", even if it brings on hysterics. And, of course, caught up in their own preoccupations, they're blind to the huge lies that they believe about the others and themselves. (The girl who loses her sight but is then able to see into her heart is a role that resists modernisation, but, in Claudia Elmhirst's dignified performance, is never embarrassing.)

A casualty of the sex wars (the long-gone fathers of her three children never married her), Vera nevertheless sees it as a necessary part of growing up for her daughters to have their hearts broken. But she feels awkward with her son, preferring the quasi-filial cuddles of one daughter's boyfriend.

Outstanding among the appealing cast are Katherine Tozer as a girl whose constant criticism of the others fails to disguise her own fragility, and Ian Duncan as the chancer who lives by his pretty face and other people's credulity. As the girl who throws herself into left-wing crusades to take her mind off her own needs, Laura Rees is charming but needs to act a bit less, especially when listening, as does Christopher Harper, the cheery but dim ukelele strummer who maddens everyone with his one tune, "Make Yourself a Happiness Pie".

Ackland's play sometimes feels underwritten, but it casts a gentle spell, occasionally stirred by a remark that sounds oddly up to date. "I really think it's positively old-fashioned to be a man," says Vera when two of them have been behaving badly. "And in a few years, there won't be any left. They'll all go right out of fashion."

To 20 March (020-8940 3633)

Comments