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.
Katie McGuinness was again superb as the title character after similar successes in Nan and Mary Broom (both also at the Orange Tree), whilst Christopher Ravenscroft plays a much nastier and more complex character than the nice DI Burden he played in Inspector Wexford. As it was the first preview, a couple of slight glitches in the first part are easily excused, especially as the director, Sam Walters, was in the audience ready to pick them up and make sure they are sorted by tonight. There was not a single fault in the second part which was sheer joy, the plot and performances picking up and driving forward to a perfect (but not predictable) ending.
I used to live closer to the Orange Tree Theatre, going regularly, and still try to go when as often as I can. Sam Walters specialises in finding relatively unknown, well-constructed plays from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is a crime that this play, written in 1924 by Githa Sowerby, has never been performed in the UK. As with many of his other finds, what surprises is not how dated these plays are but how they resonate with our current time. It may seem odd that the only purpose-built true theatre in-the-round that I know of in London should offer such a good home for 100 year old plays.