The Orange Tree Theatre’s spring season traditionally ends with a showcase by their trainee directors: this year, a double-bill directed by Jimmy Grimes and Teunkie van der Sluijs that features several of the actors from the theatre’s recent Three Farces.
Grimes’s devised piece Then The Snow Came, interweaving Oscar Wilde’s fairytale The Happy Prince with a look into the less leafy side of Richmond, and van der Sluijs’s production of Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse’s oblique two-hander Winter both deal with isolation and desperation (as well as being profanity-heavy) – the former drawing on real life characters and situations, while the latter is absolutely impersonal and clinical.
Grimes conceived Then The Snow Came after talking to a rough sleeper when stranded on the streets in Richmond on a cold night. The piece was crafted alongside the Richmond homelessness charity SPEAR and the richness of his research is evident with a real sense of collaboration; some of the dialogue is verbatim and the integration of The Happy Prince, a tale about compassion, devotion and sacrifice, is very much in sympathy with the story of these two men and adds another layer lyricism to the narrative without feeling contrived.
There are two outstanding central performances: the brash Mickey (Kieron Jecchinis), and his more poetically-minded, softly-spoken Liverpudlian friend, Stu (Daniel Cheyne). Ed Bennett also provides agile support in all his cameos, particularly the policeman who bookends the piece. These men carry all their worldly possessions in bedraggled rucksacks from spot one to another, when Mickey’s ex-partner is rushed to hospital and he has to raise the train fare to Middlesbrough. Jecchinis’s highly physical performance makes Mickey engaging and charismatic; we want him to succeed, but he’s held back by his circumstances and by himself. Wilde’s tale concludes with the Happy Prince and his devoted swallow being whisked off to heaven by an angel, while Grimes ends on a bleak note with the destruction of a friendship and the inability to move on. A thoughtful, haunting piece that’s accentuated with puppetry – something that could be developed even further.
On the other hand, Jon Fosse’s 2000 play Winter is a frosty affair that’s completely devoid of warmth or humanity. The recent production of his play I Am The Wind at the Young Vic seemed to suggest that Fosse is an acquired taste who creates works that are mesmerising to some and insufferably tedious and pretentious to others. On his way to a meeting, a mild mannered businessman (Stuart Fox) encounters an unhinged young woman (Jennifer Higham) in a city park. She’s completely spaced-out (surely a drug addict or a prostitute – maybe both), they go back to his hotel room together and he decides to leave his family and job for her. When we see her again, she’s all glammed-up and less childlike – was it all an act? And why should we care?
Fosse’s interminably repetitive writing is as drab and colourless as the concrete slabs on stage. It’s hard not to feel sorry for the waif-like Higham, who is forced to declare, “I am your lady” over and over again like a broken record. Fox and Higham’s commitment can’t be faulted and van der Sluijs’s direction is effectively spare, but to this Fosse sceptic, it’s more of a slog than a challenge that very much outstays any initial spark of interest.