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ORPHANS – Southwark Playhouse, London.

OrphansOrphans, written by Lyle Kessler and directed by Paul Tomlinson, is a brutal and touching story of two brothers whose tenuous lives are disrupted when a stranger intrudes into the world they’ve built for themselves and turns it upside down. Orphaned by their mother’s death, their father having deserted them long ago, and forgotten by the world, the boys do the best they can to survive from day to day.

Both boys are equally vulnerable in very different ways. Treat (Alexander Neal) is ruthless and full of a bravado that hides his deep insecurities. He steals to put food on the table for his younger brother Philip (Chris Pybus), who he keeps virtually locked away in their North Philadelphia home with half truths and ignorance, the TV and Treat’s stories are the only access Philip has to the world outside.

One night, Treat seizes an opportunity to make some money and brings home a drunk Chicago gangsta on the run who he intends to kidnap for ransom money. But things take a strange and unsettling turn when he discovers no one misses Harold (Mitchell Mullen) all that much, and their ‘prisoner’ seems only too happy to stay.

Harold takes the boys under his wing, buying them clothes, promising Treat a job and a better life, and slowly drawing Philip out of his shell. Under Harold’s gentle encouragement, Philip flourishes. Stifled for so many years by his brother’s overbearing lies, Philip realises there is a whole world outside the four walls of their house. On the other hand, Treat is forced to live up to the realisation that the life that he has so painstakingly crafted for him and his brother is falling away rapidly.

A question mark hangs over Harold’s motives for much of the play and remain unresolved. You see him through the brothers’ eyes: They don’t know his motives so neither do we. Are his intentions sincere? An orphan himself, is wanting to escape his old life and do some good, or is he simply training the brothers to do his dirty work for him?

Gina Rose Lee has designed a bleak set, accentuated by Amy Mae’s harsh lighting, highlights the drama. The one room in which the play takes place in is claustrophobic and stifling, despite the role it plays as a safe haven. The stark setting forces you to focus on the material itself, which is both brutal and heartbreaking, full of intense emotion from beginning to end, but not without comedic moments. The small cast delivers Kessler’s dialogue with commitment and conviction, making for an engaging experience even when the plot becomes a little hazy.

The bittersweet ending leaves you uneasy. Having being given this brief and strange glimpse at the possibilities that life has to offer, what will become of Treat and Philip? Orphans is an interesting study of three characters on the margins of society and a co-dependant relationship between two young boys forced to deal with the world alone long before they are ready.

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Reviewed 15/02/2016

By Catherine Duffy

10th February – 5th March 2016
Southwark Playhouse, London SE1 6BD

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