"Oh, brother, where art thou?"
by Chris Bearne on 21/02/16

Why bother? Why bother with a now decades-old American three-hander set in a shabby Philadelphia suburban backwater, even with its Steppenwolf credentials and vigorous afterlife? And why care? Why should I care about the tawdry misfortunes of two brothers, a petty criminal and his, well, “different” younger sibling?
It’s a little late to write about “Orphans” by Kyle Lessler at the Southwark Studio. Others have been here before (see Facebook/Orphans, Whatsonstage et al) and if you’ve read this far you will already know about the plot, the themes, the characters. But I wanted just to add my bit, because it was worth bothering and I did very much care, cared four stars’ worth in fact.

Why? Because there are stories and situations for which only the stage, I think, works, especially a space like that provided by Southwark Playhouse. If this play were just “about” masculinity, power, control, mental debility, rage, social exclusion, street crime etc. it would clunk to a standstill … better to explore such issues on screen or in the documentary format. But this is a comedy, in the time-honoured sense ; peopled by rounded, complex, surprising characters ; it has to be played out, witnessed up close and energetically physicalised. And it has to be heightened. There is an element, beautifully realised by all three actors, of supra-normality, of exaggeration that edges surreptitiously over into the surreal, without heading off into Pinter or Albee Land, that for me was the touchstone of this show, which defied any audience member to remain unengaged.

Alex Neal’s Treat, wired, out of his depth, bullying, rage ever simmering, criminally amoral, had us nevertheless still latched on to his every moment … difficult to reconcile with the equally driving compulsion to follow every beat and nuance of Chris Pybus’s Philip, his man-child dependence on his brother, his seraphic smile when earning even a soupçon of approval from his elder sibling. Their life together is just about tolerable ; Treat’s complete subjugation of Philip, his mental and physical incarceration of him, the extreme violence of his bouts of rage, are the only recourse at his command. Philip is held in thrall, but not I think in terror. I have not seen any other comment on this aspect, but it seemed to me that this play holds up a very particular prism to brotherly love, sibling dependence and above all early parental loss … mother is perpetually and painfully absent from this ratty room ; the comedy of the game of tag, the tuna-and-Hellman’s running gag, the weirdly eclectic nature of Philip’s acquisition of knowledge from the sparse sources allowed him, all point, tellingly, to what might have been, had mother not died. But do we ever feel that Treat might seriously hurt Philip? No.

Then in staggers the drunken Harold, “businessman” waylaid – and pretty quickly kidnapped - by Treat, in what he sees as his potentially-life changing heist. Harold does not comply. He’s rich but not bankable, criminally associated but not ransomable. He works on the brothers. He succeeds. He IS a Chicago mobster, pretty clearly, but – apart from just one, very convincing whiplash of violence – a worker-by-charm. As excellently played by Mitchell Mullen (brilliant as Arthur in Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts in this same space two years ago), he comes across as a latter-day Jimmy Cagney, a smile to placate the most savage assailant, albeit with a reptilian glint, and a brilliant, moment-by-moment developing strategy to take control, to home-make, to coddle the man-child, to school the tearaway by dangling the carrot of approval … parental – no, motherly - approval. The trouble with that approach, of course, is that you create the conditions for long-dormant sibling rivalry … and that’s not going to end well, is it? Do go and find out, well worth the trip to Southwark.

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