Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond
Opened 19 March, 1999

The good people of Richmond are rightly exercised about the possibility of a fifth terminal being built at Heathrow. It is appropriate, then, that the Orange Tree should be the venue for Jane Coles's Low Flying Aircraft, set in a dystopian London which is one huge airport. As the glassless glass balcony door of Cody and Leanne's flat is pulled open, the blare of jet engines overpowers the entire space we are left in no doubt as to the omnipresence and intrusion of these metallic beasts, which have driven Cody into paranoid agoraphobia. Leanne works in some unspecified ancillary service, neighbour Susan as an immigration officer one of the elite strata of this society and new lodger Tara is in training to become an air hostess.

It is a fertile premise, but apart from Tara's compulsive role-playing "revision" sessions Coles uses it as background rather than necessarily integrating it into the fabric of her play. She makes rather more trenchant points rather less obtrusively in respect of the characters' casual dependency on literally dozens of mood-altering prescription drugs; this factor illustrates the breakdown of recognisably "normal" lifestyles far more than, say, Tara's loving father giving her a knife and a pistol as presents or lines such as "You've no social value, Cody," where it is implicit that "social value" is an officially conferred status leading to living privileges. And the crucial character of Tara the idiot-smiling baby-doll who first insinuates her way into Cody's pants, then attempts to nudge him towards Susan remains a sketch rather than a fully realised dramatic engine.

The Orange Tree is one of a mere handful of theatres and other theatrical set-ups who now run repertory companies. Whilst this is clearly to be applauded, the casting of Dominic Hill's production effectively reproduces the theatre's recently-ended run of Sperm Wars: Amanda Royle is rather more saintly and devoted a partner here than in the earlier production, and Sarah Tansey distinctly more unsettling as a mistress in strange clothing (this time an air hostess's uniform, last time a bee costume), but Jeremy Crutchley is essentially the same husband (or quasi-husband) conducting obsessive research in order to cope with or conceal a sense of inadequacy, and abrasively refusing to fall for what he perceives as being the manipulations of others. (Crutchley and Royle are also the lovers Mirabell and Millamant in the concurrent, erratic production of The Way Of The World; do they ever see they the back of one another?) What is most crucially missing from the production is a sense of tamped-down pressure, whether it be from the aircraft, the social fabric or the actual events depicted; Cody's sense of oppression lacks the equal and opposite claustrophobia which an audience here needs to experience. We may know it, but we do not feel it.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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