January 7, 2003: Gilbert, Engaged

Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond

This play is alive and well and still capable of vibrant production well over a century and a quarter after it first saw the light of a West End night. I’ve been to the Orange Tree Theatre — originally a pub theatre, called the Orange Tree, just across the side street a hundred yards from the Richmond railway station — only once before. It is four-square theatre in the round, postage-stamp size, with a one-row-deep balcony plus room for ten to stand (behind the balcony on one side); I estimate a capacity including standees of 150. It is another mirac­ulous instance of how wonderful London theatre can be, even in the fringe — one might say especially in the fringe. There is a total appreciation on the part of the director, Tim Carroll, and every member of the cast, for a particularly idio­syncratic and yet somehow profoundly typical combination here of farce and satire, blended together by Gilbert into a peerless vehicle for fun — peerless, that is, except for Oscar Wilde’s brilliant recreation of this combination as “farcical comedy” in The Importance of Being Earnest.

The latter play owes at least as much to the special­ized sub-genre of satirical farce as it does to the particulars of Gilbert’s plotting and characterization. (Whether Wilde actually knew or even had seen the play in its first production — Wilde would have been twenty-three at the time — or in one of its frequent revivals is, it seems, not known.) Of course, they take to heart Gilbert’s famous advice to the players not to kid the script; they must remain ostensibly uncon­scious of the fact that what they say is marvellously funny, partly because they insist on almost systematically indicting themselves for the self-aggrandizing, acquisitive egotists that they are. What Gilbert doesn’t say in his advice (because it obviously didn’t need saying) is that taking the script ser­ious­ly does not preclude playing it to the hilt, getting the dialogue as crisp and distinct as it can be gotten and getting the split-second timing exact as well.

All of this the Orange Tree actors did, with aplomb. Because they are almost literally acting in the audience’s laps, they occasionally deliver a line (usually an explanation or observation) as a kind of aside to the audience, per­­haps even to a particular member of the audience. And when, in the last act, Belvawney, who has mercifully worn his green-shaded glasses constantly, out of deference to the effect his naked eyes would have on the helpless Cheviot Hill, removes his glasses and turns his staring eyes on Cheviot, Cheviot is blown off his feet and, on the floor, works his way under the back of the seat of an audience member in the first row, having put two large sherry glasses over his eyes for protection and fallen flat in the process.

Gilbert, writing in his early forties and already at the top of his form, manages the complex plot and its satirical replication of complex plotting with great esprit, inventing a whole series of well-contrasted characters that are meat and drink for accom­plished actors. It’s easy to see why the uneasy murmurs of critics of the first production of Engaged, at the Haymarket in 1877, were swiftly drowned out by roars of ap­plause. I found this production just delicious good fun, but you don’t have to be a scholar versed in the history of nineteenth- century popular theatre to enjoy it. The Orange Tree audience was a mixture of old, middle-aged, and young who evidently loved it as much as I did, even to the extent of bursting out in applause at the end of Belinda’s absurdly long catalogue of consecutive and mutually exclusive possibilities created by the complexities of the situation in which she finds herself.

This is why I keep coming back to London to go to the theatre. Even the un­seas­onably freezing temperatures (there was snow on the Richmond platform) and the cancellation or long delaying of trains back to central London didn’t come close to dampening my enthusiasm for the enterprise of live theatre in this city.


(The prices indicated in the following reviews do not include booking fees for telephone reservations, which range from no fee to £3.50. Programmes are noticeably more expensive than the last time I visited, from £1.50 to £3.50, most of them £2 .50 or £3.00. After all these years it is still hard to get used to paying for a program — sorry, “programme” — considering that they are free in America. As the price goes up here, the amount of useful information goes down.)


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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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