Blue Heart, Orange Tree, Richmond, review: 'This dazzling diptych makes extraordinary demands of the cast'

Nearly 20 years after its Royal Court premiere, this exhilarating Caryl Churchill double bill includes two one act plays, Heart's Desire and Blue Kettle 

Paul Taylor
Wednesday 19 October 2016 19:25
Alex Beckett and Janet Henfrey, part of a ensemble cast that performs with breathtaking virtuosity
Alex Beckett and Janet Henfrey, part of a ensemble cast that performs with breathtaking virtuosity

A warm welcome for this exhilarating revival – directed by David Mercatali in a co-production between the Orange Tree Theatre and Bristol's Tobacco Factory – of a Caryl Churchill double bill that has not been given a major professional whirl since it was premiered by Max Stafford-Clark and Out of Joint in 1997. Perhaps it's because, even by her standards, this dazzling diptych makes extraordinary demands of the cast. The two 40-minute pieces are linked by theme and by outrageous playfulness with theatrical form. Family breakdown is communicated through a situation pushed to the giddy limits of what can be performed in the first play, “Heart's Desire” and, in the second, through a scenario in which the participants gradually succumb to a sort of a linguistic virus that spreads and replaces almost every noun, verb, and adverb with the words of its title: “blue” and “kettle”.

Arousing wild laughter, unease, and melancholy, the diptych has a yen to self-destruct like the man here who reveals his lurid fantasy of auto-cannibalism: “Can my mouth swallow my mouth?” he asks. Blue Heart requires feats that are very nearly as tricky as that stunt would be. Mercatali's crack company pulls them off with breathtaking virtuosity.

The first piece shows us a bickering sitcom-like family as they await the return from Australia of a long-absent daughter. Repressed anxieties are surreally released as the short scene is replayed over and over again and veers off in alternative directions so that neither we nor they know whether it will be the SAS, a fully fledged fledged ostrich, or news of a fatal accident that will arrive next. The cast here bring hilarious timing of gesture and bravura musicality to the mix of meticulous reconstruction and repetition with bizarre variations of pace, tone and content.

We seem to be watching a berserk but precise ballet (the re-laying of the table, say, more times than it's supported hot dinners) and listening to a fiendishly difficult chamber piece simultaneously. A high-spirited absurdist game with a host of hypothetical outcomes gives you sobering flashes of what could be a very dark picture of this family indeed if only they or “Heart's Desire” weren't in such a state of chronically interminable indecision.

“Blue Kettle” tell the story of a middle-aged conman who deceives a succession of elderly women that he is the son they put up for adoption. Is it primarily for the money or in complex reaction to the fact that his actual mother is now going senile in a geriatric ward?

Most dramatists would be satisfied at having hit upon that scenario and have left it there. But in a brilliant experimental twist, Churchill makes the situation all the more haunting and queasily comic by showing how language breaks down under the emotional strain creating the weird verbal tic described above. Grief and confusion may become unutterable but communication somehow survives.

It would be invidious to single out particular actors in Mercatali's ensemble. But they are great collective interpreters of Churchill, as is proved by the exquisite lightness of touch with which they modulate from brisk puzzling playfulness to a sort of bleak poignancy in the handling of this play.

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