And so it begins. This picture gives nothing away about Dennis Kelly’s Orphans, which stormed the Edinburgh Fringe and now comes to Soho, because it’s the very first moment of the play. Helen (a terrific performance from Claire-Louise Cordwell, half WAG half sniper) and Danny are an apparently respectable couple, sitting down to dinner in their well-upholstered home, when a man comes through the doorway, drenched in someone else’s blood. It soon becomes clear that he is Helen’s brother; that he has a knack for trouble; and that his first account of what has happened isn’t the whole truth.
Orphans is, in some ways, a very traditional play. It runs in close to real time (with one lapse in the middle, which will have terrible repercussions later), it’s all set in one place, and it’s set in Britain in the present day. What, no promenade? No audience participation? No puppets, no dancing, no mime? Absolutely not, but by sticking close to the conventions, Kelly frees himself to tell his story, and to keep his audience bewitched. We’ve become so used to theatrical distraction that the simple thrill of narrative — of being desperate to know what happens next — feels almost radical in Orphans, as Kelly keeps twisting the action, upsetting all that’s gone before.
This is a play that’s stuffed with ideas: about Britain, about violence, about terror. It’s a play about not looking, and what we all choose not to see. And at its heart is a simple dilemma: how far would you go to protect your own family, whatever they were responsible for? I spent a couple of weeks this summer travelling around Britain, interviewing couples about their daily lives. Many of them had been terribly affected by recession: lost jobs, squeezed incomes, their communities closing down around them. When pubs and local shops shut down, what’s lost isn’t business but cohesion; when society unglues there’s little cause to stick together. And the one over-riding faith was family. stick with them, look after them, support them. Orphans pushes family to its limits. What happens when family and justice collide? And when does protection become cover-up, or worse?
Director Roxana Silbert gives the play a slowly tightening tension that creates a real sense of dread. And, although at its heart this is a dark and bitter play, it’s full of good jokes to sweeten the pill: there are echoes here of Jez Butterworth, and a clear link back to Pinter in its claustrophobia, its sweatiness, and its protagonists’ inability to communicate. Like a lot of current drama, there are perhaps too many themes here, fighting for attention, but it’s exciting and refreshing to see a play so confident, so heartfelt, so completely engaged with the world.