Halloween proved the perfect night for the Durham Student Theatre to start their run of Dennis Kelly’s chilling psychological drama ‘Orphans’. Despite the ordered, well laid, set being the antithesis of Halloween’s conventions, the blood soaked introduction of the play’s antagonist Liam gives the house, and indeed the neighbourhood, an immediately harrowing aura. It is from this moment that the play disentangles wildly in a melee of revelations which are disorderedly structured, messily uncovered and yet devastatingly powerful in their execution.
The challenge on the actors was huge considering the play only contains three characters: Danny, Helen and Liam – the former two being husband and wife and the latter pair orphaned siblings. This never showed. The trio played off each other’s contrasting energies to such a successful degree that any more characters would deny the play its vexing intensity. Having said that, the phrase ‘two is company, three is a crowd’ could not be more apt in this production given the destructive presence of Liam. This is pre-suggested excellently by the staging in the opening sequence, where Danny and Helen enjoy a meal for two, while an empty third chair at the end of the table protrudes imposingly, waiting to be occupied.
Edward Cherrie excelled as Liam, the troubled victim of his unfortunate upbringing. Initially, in spite of his bloody entrance, Cherrie emitted something of a James Corden-esque tomfoolery in his representation. As the truth begins to unravel however, this joking façade is dropped and we see a much more complex character emerge from the wreckage of the play’s events. Liam is fundamentally flawed, although through a sophisticated characterisation, Cherrie ensures that we always have at least some level of sympathy for him, and that feat has to be admired. One particularly striking scene, where the light and dark aspects of Liam’s’ character are exposed at once, is an exceptionally directed, and acted, exchange. Here, we see Liam discuss Nazi Memorabilia with the couple and while he says to Helen ‘It’s disgusting’, he then turns to Danny saying ‘but it’s amazing isn’t it?’ At this point we get an eerie sense that Liam is in fact talking to himself given the direction to have each character face away from each other, leaving him addressing no one.
Danny represents everything Liam is not, and David Myers portrays this superbly through his role as the voice of reason in the play. As is so often the case, however, the voice of reason is not always respected, and he is frequently outnumbered by the orphans who have an intrinsic need to look after each other’s interests. His battles with common sense and obligation are impressive and his discourse with Kayleigh Carr’s manipulative Helen is equally stunning to behold. Carr portrays to perfection a woman caught between her family and her marriage and generates deep sympathy, yet at times flicks suddenly to a more unpredictable and potentially dangerous character than her brother. This generates the idea that perhaps Danny is the real third party in the play and not Liam.
The music from Sondre Bryntesen cuts deep into the drama of the production, yet the directors’ use of extended spells of silence is equally effective. When coupled with the final scene where UV light reveals the walls not to be so perfectly whitewashed as it at first seemed we get a stunning visual symbol to the climax of ‘Orphans’, which is a true triumph to those involved in staging the play.
Directors Chris Blois-Brooke and Cordelia Yeung have much to be proud of in pulling off a tough production in the classiest of manners.