Dame Judi Dench in conversation

Filmed a few months ago at Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre, here is a chance to see and hear one of our national theatre treasures, Dame Judi Dench, in conversation about her life and career.

Presented as a fundraiser for the Orange Tree, the 90-minute recording is now available to rent for just £4.99, which will go towards the theatre’s fund to ensure its survival and reopening after the current crisis has passed. The recording is available to view until May 31st.

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Review: THE SUGAR SYNDROME

THE SUGAR SYNDROME Plays the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond until February 22nd. Tickets and Information here

IN BRIEF Challenging debut from Lucy Prebble hits home in sensitive revival with an outstanding lead performance

It’s 2003 and the internet is an unsophisticated, labyrinthine beast – a thrill-ride. But for teenagers, it’s excitingly dangerous, new and thrillingly sexual – where you can create your own online personality. Online Dani is a sharp, flirty, confident person. Offline Dani is a troubled 17 year-old with an eating disorder and a need to ‘fix’ others. But when her fantasy and reality “worlds collide”, things aren’t as binary as they first appeared…

Dani meets ex-teacher Tim in a park playground. It’s a shock for him- he thought she was an 11-year old boy. With the sexual aspect removed, Dani and Tim create something akin to a friendship. She offers a listening ear. He accepts. Freed from expectation, they can talk openly about their issues. When a row results in Dani leaving home, Tim offers her shelter. When a drunken evening ends badly, he pulls back and she reverts.

It is only when confronted by the disturbing evidence of what Tim gets gratification from that a realisation dawns that this is not something she can fix in him. That realisation causes a reassessment of her other relationships, most notably with her mother, resulting in a reconciliation and a hopeful ending.

A top-notch cast is lead by Jessica Rhodes, who is mesmerising in a highly accomplished performance as Dani, a very difficult role, even more impressive as this is her professional debut. Rarely offstage during the play’s two hour running time, she gives an intricate, nuanced, insightful portrayal of this fragile, smart, emotionally-hungry young woman at a turning point in her life. Tim is effectively played by John Hollingworth with a muted, wounded restraint which generates a kind of sympathy – up to a point. Alexandra Gilbreath worries and paces to effect as the discarded wife and mother – we feel for her as time passes by, cruelly diminishing her. Ali Barouti successfully breathes anxious life into young Lewis, another online encounter, whose connection with Dani lasts longer than the one-minute hand-job she “fixes” him with. We feel for him in his lament at why good women go out with bad men.

Lucy Prebble’s debut play from 2003 is an assured treatment of difficult and controversial subjects, artfully blending surprising moments of humour which arise naturally from the characters, giving a real human edge to the script, and it succeeds with aplomb in this timely revival directed with care and understanding by Oscar Toeman.

Sound and lighting add to the production (particularly the nostalgic sound and flickering LED lights of old-fashioned dial-up internet!), and the minimal set is simple and effective.

THE SUGAR SYNDROME is yet another first-class revival from the adventurous management of the Orange Tree. I’m looking forward to the rest of the season.

THE SUGAR SYNDROME Plays the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond until February 22nd. Tickets and Information here


Review: SADNESS AND JOY IN THE LIFE OF GIRAFFES

IN BRIEF Playful, compassionate exploration of a young girl’s grief brings more joy than sadness, expertly played and directed.

“This is my presentation…I hope you will not be bored”. A tall nine-year old girl, Giraffe (so nicknamed by “the woman that was my Mother”) prefaces her talk by defining a catalogue of words she has learned from her beloved dictionary. We are whisked into her home life, as her unemployed actor father faces too many bills and too little money. Giraffe’s favourite Discovery Channel (“not a luxury”, she chides us) is cut off, so she decides to take matters into her own hands to find the 53,507 euros it will cost for her to have the Channel for the rest of her life (she confidently assumes she will live to be 100). Together with her shockingly foul-mouthed teddy bear Judy Garland they set off on an adventure to rustle up the said sum, meeting along the way a disillusioned old man, a potential paedophile, Chekhov and a depressed bank teller, as well as the Prime Minister of Portugal.

So far, so bizarre. But as the climax of the adventure approaches, it comes into focus that the hub of the story is about Giraffe working through the grief of her mother’s loss, and trying to make sense of the world. This culminates in her realisation that you can’t pass laws to make everything right, and that logic does not always explain events or why they happen. Or, “the day I grew up” as she describes it. And that on these occasions, words just aren’t enough.

Writer Rodrigues captures compassionately both the joy of childhood fantasy and the sheer unstructured-ness of play, and the sadness of reality’s inevitable erosion of that charming state as it brings light and shade to the initially binary reactions. Mark O’Thomas’s meticulous translation (from the original Portuguese) manages to preserve the age-specific use of language which gives texture and credibility to the script.

Eve Ponsonby balances Giraffe’s earnestness and logic with a wilder, more playful way of thinking. Her inquisitive eyes and ears intake and evaluate every thought, word, feeling and sound in a torrent of sensation. Ponsonby beautifully and skilfully captures Giraffe’s moment of transition.

Nathan Welsh as ragged, stroppy, fabulously swear-y Judy Garland has a whale of a time with his role, vocalising as he does some of Giraffe’s unspoken inner thought processes. Gyuri Sarossy effectively plays a range of more down to earth supporting roles, best as the loving but terrified father clinging to his mantra “everything will be alright”.

Director Wiebke Green’s whole production strikes a delicate balance between joy and sadness without falling into sentimentalism or childishness, which could have been quite easy with such an unusual script which sometimes borders on the surreal. Lex Kosanke’s sound design adds and accentuates accompanying sounds to a range of situations, heightening the drama as Giraffe sees and hears it.

The working through of grief is complex and troubling for anyone, let alone a young child. But the compassionate, amusing and quirky way that Rodrigues explores his subject’s thoughts reminds us, in a bitter-sweet way, that growing up was never easy. If we let it, Green’s deft production can find the child in all of us.


SADNESS AND JOY IN THE LIFE OF GIRAFFES played in the Directors’ Festival at The Orange Tree, Richmond from 3-11 August. Details here


For information about the unique MA Directing course at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, details here


Review: WHILE THE SUN SHINES

“John Hudson as Horton the butler is a model of unflappable diligence “. Photo courtesy Orange Tree website

IN BRIEF Rattigan’s joyfully racy wartime comedy shines brilliantly in Paul Miller’s polished and perfectly cast production.

Wartime creates strange bedfellows – both literally and metaphorically – in Paul Miller’s polished and precise production of Terence Rattigan’s enjoyably racy wartime comedy (and biggest hit) which stands up superbly well. Immaculately cast across the board, this production is perfectly pitched, paced and played thanks to Miller’s detailed direction.

When Bobby, Earl of Harpenden, rescues Joe, a US lieutenant, from a London pavement and takes him home to sleep off his drunkenness, he sets in motion a train of events that threaten his impending marriage to Lady Elizabeth the following day. Misunderstandings abound as Elizabeth’s surprise visit to her fiancée leads Joe to think she is good time girl Mabel Crum, Bobby’s ex. He falls for her, and the somewhat inexperienced Elizabeth is swept off her feet. But Elizabeth has yet another admirer waiting in the wings – a Free French lieutenant who she met on a train, intent on declaring his “white hot” love for her. The ensuing action revolves around a five-way emotional tug of war, somewhat hampered by Mabel, the “other woman” and the interjections of Elizabeth’s cash-strapped windbag of a father, the Duke.

“Adorably puppyish” Philip Labey as Bobby. Photo courtesy Orange Tree website

Rattigan gleefully celebrates this new liberation of attitudes as normality gets chucked out of the window. The play constantly flirts with anti-convention, just as in real life people flirted with death on a daily basis.

Rattigan’s craftsmanship in writing (so often seen in his dramas but less often in comedies), together with a finely tuned ear for absurdity or a twist of phrase all works to bring the show fully to life, flying through its running time. The script is democratic in playfully ribbing all national types in the Alliance- the mild-mannered Englishman, the brash American, the excitable Frenchman – to telling effect.

As to the uniformly top-notch performances, Dorothea Myer-Bennett is acute and deliciously droll as Mabel Crum, the self- confessed “trollop for men”, with a delightfully knowing vocal delivery.

Michael Lumsden as the Duke channels the bluster of Nigel Bruce (Dr Watson in the Sherlock Holmes classic movies of the 40s) for a beautifully rounded comic turn, his asking (in his all too literal French) the Frenchman to play dice – inadvertently sexually propositioning him – was a particular highlight at which the audience roared.

Michael Lumsden as The Duke, “a beautifully rounded comic turn”. Photo courtesy Orange Tree website

Jordan Mifsud as the combustible Frenchman Colbert racks up another Orange Tree success after his (also explosive) performance in Shaw’s MISALLIANCE at the end of 2017.

Philip Labey is adorably puppyish and charmingly mild-mannered as Bobby, cheerfully bearing the load of the early (lengthy) dialogues. Sabrina Bartlett is a young and impressionable Elizabeth, understating her drunk scene to great comic effect. Julian Moore-Cook gives Joe an attractive edge and a potent baritone, and John Hudson as Horton the butler is a model of unflappable diligence in the midst of the challenges encircling him. Each is a faultless, well-turned and detailed performance.

Sabrina Bartlett (Elizabeth) and Julian Moore-Cook (Joe) .”well-turned and detailed performances” Photo courtesy Orange Tree website

Simon Daw’s economical but evocative set lends just the right tone and makes the most of the space.

Sadly, comedy has never been given as much credence as drama, yet it takes more skill to write and to play. This beautifully-crafted, irresistible diversion must have been very welcome in 1943; no wonder audiences hugged it in the West End for three years. It gets no less of a reception today.

This show deserves a much longer life ahead through a UK tour. If you enjoy well-crafted performance, please hurry along to the Orange Tree by July 27th.


WHILE THE SUN SHINES plays at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond until July 27th. More information and tickets here