Double Bill: Squirrels Plus The After Dinner Joke

Liz Vercoe reviews the latest Orange Tree production

David Mamet and Caryl Churchill double bill tests directors showcasing their skills under the Orange Tree’s trainee directors’ scheme, discovers Liz Vercoe.

David Mamet’s name naturally attracts audiences keen to experience more treasures such as his spine-tingling GlengarJune 4, 201490s. But even great writers start somewhere and can prove practice makes perfect.

Mamet’s 1974 play Squirrels is an introspective, introverted, three-hander about the trials of “writing”. Designer Sam Dowson sets the scene with two wooden desks facing each other like two battered old man ’o war. Seated at one is Arthur (David Mallinson), exuding arrogant confidence in himself as an “artist”. At the other is his new writing assistant Edmond (Peter McGovern), himself a young writer keen to learn from one of the greats.

Writer Arthur (David Mallinson) never gets to the point, in Squirrels - photo by Robert Day

But Arthur has become obsessed with a single image, that of squirrels in a park, around which other fantasy events may or may not happen. Edmond, initially, dutifully writes down the possibilities. But when he tries to contribute he is soon shut down by Arthur, who says: “Enough improvisation, enough love making”.

Arthur remains deaf and blind to anything that is not of his own making. Mamet’s dialogue returns to squirrels, and yet more squirrels, to the point of tedium, despite David Mallinson squeezing out whatever jokes he can that underline Arthur’s self-delusion.

In steps A Cleaning Woman, who Lewis Gray, the first of this year’s trainee directors, styles rather like a Samuel Beckett character, full of enigma and suggestion, asking if anyone wants “to make love”. In a rich performance by actress Janet Spencer-Turner she suggests the essences of woman, the past, the muse, motherhood, victim, whore… And she too writes, by night, between mopping the floors, leaving scraps of ideas in the waste bin that the two deluded men then claim to have invented themselves.

This production best captures the shape of the Mamet yet-to-come in a wonderful little exchange between her and Arthur that is possibly memory lane or maybe creative fantasy, but is disturbing and moving.

But on the whole, as Mamet says in an interview in the programme, making films in the 1980s taught him to cut out the unnecessary stuff. This play was written before then.

Next up is Caryl Churchill’s After Dinner Joke written for the BBC’s Play For Today in 1978. Here second trainee director Sophie Boyce keeps up the pace and makes use of the whole of the Orange Tree’s tiny theatre in the round, including the balconies.

In common with the Mamet play we have an idealistic young person, Selby (a very convincing Lydia Larson), getting a harsh lesson in old-school reality. Selby wants to work in the charity sector because it avoids both capitalism and politics. The next hour and 20 minutes entertainingly proves just how wrong she can be.

The ensemble cast of actors David Gooderson, Joanathan Christie, Ben Onwukwe and Rebecca Pownall impeccably offer characters ranging from tycoon to anarchist, sheik to celebrity cookery writer in quick change scenes sending up the efforts of sponsored walks, golf, gigs and custard pie throwing; the giving of goats as gifts…and selling books of after dinner jokes by rich people to rich people. But even here, there’s a stage just over an hour in when you feel like saying “I’ve got the point!”.

Far from escaping politics and capitalism, concludes Churchill, the charity sector has a vested interest in maintaining both. Considering we had this warning cry in 1978, it seems not much has changed.

Liz Vercoe

June 3, 2014

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