Three cheers for a play that’s funny, modern and sharply observant says Liz Vercoe
Oh what joy it is to be swept into a play within minutes of the curtain rising (although curtains have to be imagined at the Orange Tree’s tiny theatre in the round). Here we meet an uncertain English girl (Helen Baxendale, still of Cold Feet fame and familiarity) in a clinically contemporary bedroom with a charming and funny Aussie (played by real-life Aussie Timothy Knightly) who is hopeful of how the night might work out, but not pushy.
Helen Baxendale image by Helen Warner
We are led through this first scene like a game of consequences. Two single people who are attracted to each other, thrown together thousands of miles from home. He said… she said… what he did next… what she did next…. What, we wonder, will the final unfolding of the paper reveal?
At this point, rather unfortunately, designer Signe Beckmann requires the equivalent of Pickfords removals to come in: the bed becomes sofas, a bazaar’s worth of carpets are unrolled, coffee tables, table lamps and all the trappings of a sitting room have to be conjured up. It’s a bit distracting but worth the wait.
Now we discover Baxendale is Bea, a forty-something mother who has returned suddenly from Oz without her offspring to take refuge with her two former college chums, somewhere near Brighton. Barely able to get a word in edgeways, she comes across like a creature lost in space but who, unlike ET, refuses to phone home. It also begins to dawn that possibly time has moved on from scene one. Here we have three mums, each struggling along in her own way with motherhood.
The Distance’s writer Deborah Bruce moves into full throttle with some of the best-observed new lines to grace an actor’s lips in recent years. And its talented cast know exactly how to deliver them. Anyone who has sat with student friends and sorted out the world over a bottle of wine long into the night will recognise this scene. Anyone who has tried to repeat it after intervening lives have gone very separate ways will, possibly sadly, also recognise it.
Uber-organised Kate (Clare Lawrence-Moody), whose home they’re in, is so far on a different wavelength to Bea there’s not even static interference connecting them. This is a woman who‘s decided the only way to get through life is to control everything and everyone, including her long-suffering, loving, one-time pop-star husband Dewi (Daniel Hawksford, deftly handling a particularly tricky character). Kate’s saving grace is that she has “good intentions” running through her like seaside rock.
Attempting to pay attention is scatty and endearing Alex (Emma Beattie who has eyes like bewildered flying saucers), distracted half to death by the fact that her teenage son is home alone barely a stone’s throw (which she fears he might be hefting) from the London riots of 2011.
Wandering through this scene of mutual misunderstanding is Dewi’s, spliff-sharing brother Vinnie (Oliver Ryan). And, eventually, Alex’s son Liam (Bill Milner is great), rescued from London and proving that sometimes 15 years of life experience can offer more sense and clarity than 40. His tremendous scene with Bea, who elsewhere is required to say very little but with great meaning, is the perfect embodiment of this.
It would be so easy to go over the top with these characters, to turn them into comedy clichés, but Director Charlotte Gwinner keeps an iron grip on the whole process and ensures the audience remains moved by what are three versions of self-imposed matriarchal madness.
Temptingly the layers of the play unfold, line after line, laugh after laugh, as the audience is drawn into the past lives of each character, discovering why they are where they are now. It’s almost perfect. Only Kate and Dewi’s sudden change of direction is slightly hard to swallow. Still, the audience remains tantalised to the very end.
Back to that bedroom. And the consequence is….
Do find out.
The Distance runs until 8 November. For tickets, numbered seating is now offered, call the Box Office on 020 8940 3633 or www.orangetreetheatre.co.uk
October 13, 2014