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The Thunderbolt, by Arthur Wing Pinero

Friday, 3 September, 2010

Greed in the spotlight

The Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond – 1 Sept – 2 Oct 2010, 7.45pm (2.45 including 15 min interval)

This long-forgotten Edwardian drama is principally about greed, and since that is a human quality that hardly ever changes, its subject is as current now as it ever was.

So, when the Mortimore family are reconciled to their long-lost brother, on the advice of his lawyer and literally on his death bed, their thoughts – collectively and individually – turn quickly to the will, who might get what, and how much. Matters are complicated by the apparent lack of a substantive document which might just point to the wishes of the deceased regarding his not inconsiderable fortune.

He has made his money in beer, something which doesn’t seem to trouble these temperance-society local notables.

They don’t seem to be troubled either by the existence of an acknowledged illegitmate daughter, who, when she appears, hardly seems to be the bohemian, that her residence (in Paris) and her inclinations (she is training to be an artist) might indicate. In fact, she is young, beautiful and possessed of a degree of moral certitude which is in stark contrast to her deceased father’s family. What upsets this potential heiress is the lack of any kind of document that might point to her father’s love. It is this (it seems) that concerns her; the spiritual, rather than financial, legacy.

There is a big cast here and this is a full-on costume drama. The Orange Tree’s in-the-round space seems quite crowded sometimes, but director Sam Walters moves everything along – including the substantial quantity of furniture on the stage, when necessary – at a brisk pace, and as is usual at the Orange Tree, there is an excellent cast who make the most of Pinero’s script. Its determination to illustrate the moral weaknesses of the whole Mortimore family is unrelenting. Even the scarcely acknowledged Thaddeus (Stuart Fox), the music teacher who has married beneath him, for all his protestations regarding the family’s duty, is finally revealed as self-seeking and vain, even though his reasons for wanting the money are slightly more understandable.

There is a fairly long-winded section towards the close of the first act which reveals something that most of the audience will have understood to be not beyond the bounds of possibility for some while before, but mostly this doesn’t feel like a long play, and that is mostly down to the quality of the performances on show here.

There are many highlights, but Orange Tree regular David Antrobus as the hapless lawyer Vallance, new to the family and its inclinations is always meticulously effective. Julie Teal as one of the wives gives a masterclass in displaying her disgust at other people’s behaviour, and Grainne Keenan as female lead and heir apparent (Helen Thornhill) has just the right balance of moral certitude and worldly awareness to carry our unquestioning sympathy, though her character in Pinero’s script is just a bit too perfect – at least until near the close.

Pinero’s plot meanders slightly, but it is a journey which is well worth our attention – largely because of the high-quality performances – even if no particularly momentous conclusions – apart from the fact that life can and will go on – are to be drawn.

This is almost an Edwardian soap opera, and the plot could – without too much alteration of detail or character – readily transpose itself into an Eastenders or Coronation Street plotline.

Cast: David Antrobus – Mr Vallance; Jack Armstrong – Cyril; Vincent Brimble – Mr Elkin; Amelia Brown – Joyce; Osmund Bullock – Colonel Ponting; Stuart Burgess – Heath and other servants; Stuart Fox – Thaddeus Mortimer; James Joyce – the Rev Trist; Grainne Keenan – Helen Thornhill; Geoff Lesley – James Mortimer; Brenda Longman – Ann Mortimore; Nathalie Ogle – Phyllis Mortimore; Julie Teal – Louisa Mortimore; Janet Spencer Turner – Rose Ponting; David Whitworth – Stephen Mortimore

Company: Director – Sam Walters; Set design – Sam Dowson; Lighting design – Dan Staniforth; Costume designer – Robyn Wilson; Trainee directors – Jimmy Grimes, Teunkie van der Slujis; Stage manager – Stuart Burgess; Deputy stage manager – Becky Fisher; Assistant stage manager – Sophie Acreman; Production technicians – Dan Staniforth, Michael Sowby; Assistant designer – Katy Mills

(c) Brent Crude 2010

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