It is unfair to compare performances in small theatres with those in large theatres but in this case, Michael Pennington’s astonishing performance in Dances of Death would not have been out of place on the stage of the Olivier. Howard Brenton superbly edited Strindberg’s play to include the rarely performed second act – this really should have gone on to the West End. As usual, the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond was dependably first class, most notably The Stepmother starring the superb Katie McGuinness (and Christopher Ravenscroft who was also in Dances of Death). The slightly larger St James Theatre was more variable but Rutherford & Son and The Room Next Door were both excellent. A final word must go to the Old Red Lion Theatre for another astonishing play by Philip Ridley – The Fastest Clock in the Universe. He is clearly one of our greatest playwrights and I’d never heard of him until last year.
Michael Pennington is undoubtedly one of our greatest actors – to see him such an amazing performance in such a small theatre is an astonishing experience. Linda Marlowe, who was exceptional when I saw her in Mother Adam, plays a similar part as his wife. Christopher Ravenscroft, who was superbly nasty in The Stepmother earlier this year, is the benign cousin who witnesses their love-hate marriage. Inevitably, he becomes drawn in their poisonous relationship. Usually known as just Dance of Death, this version by Howard Brenton also includes Strindberg’s less performed second act. After the brilliant development of the characters in the first part, the plot then develops in the second part as a trio of decent young actors demonstrate the way in which the poison seeps into the second generation. I would guess the reason the second part gets left out is twofold: a doubling of both the cast and the length. Howard Brenton appears to have dealt with the latter by cutting many scenes down to just two lines and this works well, allowing the action to unfold at a cracking pace while leaving room for more extended passages to show further character development. I’d be surprised if I see anything this good in such a small theatre for a long time.