This is an ambitious and challenging play which has lost none of its bite since it was written by award-winning dramatist James Saunders in 1962. The play centres on a group of characters – the jovial joker Meff, the misanthropic cynic Dust, the puzzled Lizzie, the actor playing the hermit and their director, and possibly creator, Rudge. These reluctant actors meet every night to try and stage a play about the life of the aforementioned hermit of Great Canfield. This is the true story of a man who abandoned his home in 1906 at the age of 48 to live until his death in self-imposed exile in a hut surrounded by barbed wire and wild bees.
We watch as the characters and the director argue, go off script and question the nature of existence. The question “Who am I?” comes up frequently in the play and no satisfactory answer can be found.
To seek to make sense of this deliberately absurdist piece of theatre is to miss the point. It is much better to go with the flow and enjoy the plentiful comedy and occasional moments of pathos which are created. It is the hermit, who insists on knowing his motivation, despite being mocked, patronised or ignored by the director and the other characters, who most inspires our pity.
If you like plays with a clear story, beginning, middle and end, in which all the “t”s are crossed and the “i”s dotted, this may not be the play for you. However, if you like to challenge your understanding, and your theatre a bit more abstract, there is a lot to enjoy in this production. The acting is energetic and pitch perfect with each actor really inhabiting their role. I particularly enjoyed Holly Elmes, whose comic timing as the confused Lizzie was perfect, often reflecting the confusion of the audience. Aden Gillett was also very strong as the frequently pained director of the piece. The theatre is a small “theatre in the round” with the audience surrounding the stage area on all 4 sides and without any curtains. This means there is hardly any separation between stage and audience, creating an intimate atmosphere. The crisp writing with its strong images sparkles and is delivered with great feeling and perfect diction. From sublime reveries on the meaning of life to ridiculous songs about a dung beetle, this play playfully subverts our expectations of what a night at the theatre should be. Prepare to be taken along for a stimulating and exhilarating ride!
Next Time I’ll Sing to You is on at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond until Saturday 10 December. For more information and to book tickets please click here