January 16, 1998: Murphy, All in the Wrong

Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond

We were scheduled to see a preview of The Mysteries at the Barbican Pit, but it was canceled because of a water main break. Fortunately, we were able to switch tickets for All in the Wrong to tonight. The Orange Tree is a theatre in the round — audience on all four sides of a small rectangular playing space — where every seat is a good one. This play opened the Orange Tree company’s tenure here some seasons back (1991) and is now in a spirited, joyous revival with acting done to the hilt by a consistently strong cast. There are three pairs of lovers — or, rather, two pairs of lovers and a jealous married couple, Sir John and Lady Restless (Paul Shelley and Fiona Ramsey, who will essay Macbeth and Lady Macbeth next month at this theatre).

The pace is swift and the diction excellent — every word is intelligible; and the production makes a virtue of the limitations of a small acting arena. An enclosed eighteenth-century-style chair, complete with front door and curtained windows, doubles as the closet in which the hapless Belinda is momentarily locked away. The scale of projection is in fact quite large for this small space, but the director has evidently not fallen into the fault of “toning it down” out of consideration for the close proximity of the audience; all is on the qui vive, at top of form, and consistently well cued and well timed. There may never be another chance in my lifetime to see an Arthur Murphy comedy, but I will go to my grave happy at the thought that I’ve seen this one, so well played.

The play of course has nothing really new about it; to a student of eighteenth-century comedy all is familiar. But Murphy has a first-rate grasp of the comic conventions and dramaturgical strategies of his time. Lovers of George Farquhar would be completely at home with this play, which dates from 1761 and followed on the success of several previous plays written for Garrick and the Drury Lane company. The biography of Murphy in the program notes that an earlier comedy of his, The Way to Keep Him, began as a three-act farce at Drury Lane in 1760–61 and achieved such success that Garrick prevailed on Murphy to expand it to a full-length piece. (I should read it.) The costumes were something of a mélange of nineteenth and twentieth century styles — “eclectic” would be the word — but carefully coordinated for style and color. Much care, taste, and effort have gone into this production, and I was won by it — enough to want to go back to see what this company can do with “that Scottish play,” a challenge for any theatre, large or small.


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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