Dennis Kelly’s Orphans is typical of a certain kind of contemporary British play in which a site of middle class normalcy is violently breached by the outside world. One thinks of Sarah Kane’s Blasted, Polly Stenham’s That Face. Like those plays, Orphans is intense and at times histrionic. It is also, like them, haunted not just by the spectres of urban decay and economic collapse, but by globalised armed conflict as well; in Kane’s case, the horrors of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in Stenham and Kellys’, those of the ‘War on Terror’. The iconic image of these plays is the covered face: balaclava, gasmask, Abu Ghraib hood. It is the symbol of the dispossessed, the invisible and, yes, the orphaned.
Kelly’s play opens with Liam (Sam Calleja) arriving at the home of his pregnant sister, Helen (Anna Cheney). Helen and Liam’s parents were killed in a fire, but all that will come later. In the beginning, all there is to go on is the ‘Stranger in the House of Order’ image which Kelly has said inspired the rest of the play – that of somebody covered in blood, interrupting a scene of domestic calm. The blood, Liam claims, is that of an ‘Asian lad’ who has been the victim of a horrific knife attack. Helen’s husband, Danny (Charles Mayer), wants to call the police but is talked out of it more than once. The play’s central complication is the nature of Liam’s story, which begins to bend and, finally, break under the strain of his conscience or, perhaps, just the relentless questioning of Danny, whose concern for the wounded boy slowly and chillingly gives way to self-interest.
Director Shona Benson has, wisely and mostly unproblematically, shifted the events of Kelly’s play from London to Adelaide. Her set, Ikea-like in its pale functionality, and surrounded on two sides by walls of bubble wrap, hints at the fragility of bourgeois detachment. The idea is strengthened by the layer of debris and exposed substructure which frame the set. It is reminiscent, in its way, of Victoria Lamb’s design for State Theatre’s 2010 production of Entertaining Mr Sloane (‘surrounded on every side,’ as critic Murray Bramwell put it, ‘by an atoll of junk and detritus.’) Just as Orton was in his time, Kelly is an inveterate deconstructer of the foibles of the moneyed classes, a blackly satirical antagonist of suburban blandness. The visual key to this in Benson’s set is the smashed, upturned television set that stands out amongst the milk crates and mortar. Reality bleeds into symbol, the futility and hollowness of consumer culture powerfully intimated, when Liam and Helen wave a remote control at a presumably working TV the audience cannot see.
Central to the success of this production is the nuggety Calleja’s almost overwhelmingly strong turn as Liam. Cheney and Mayer appear stiff and tentative at first beside Calleja’s finely tuned physicality – boxer-like in its springiness and upper body-driven vim – and vocal dexterity. Mayer, in contrast, takes a few scenes to find his feet, but is by the play’s second half able to imbue Danny with a grimly compelling sense of bewilderment and capitulation. It is, perhaps, the most challenging part in the play, because the character’s trajectory from bleeding-heart liberal to glassy-eyed thug in the space of a few hours is acutely implausible. Cheney grows equally, though more quickly, in her role as Helen. Her acidity is an excellent foil for Mayer’s levelness, and the awful power of Helen’s ability to manipulate is rendered with great skill and clarity.
Orphans is not yet thought to be among Kelly’s best works. Perhaps its sensationalism and improbabilities (not to mention its bleaker than bleak finale) have proved hard to forgive by some. Bluefruit Theatre’s production, even if it is unable to resolve the overstretch of Kelly’s text, nevertheless more than ably highlights its strength as an absorbing portrait of a society in a state of moral, social and economic decay. Sadly, Kelly’s preoccupying issues – violence, racism, and the disenfranchisement of both the white working class and immigrants – are portable. Benson’s direction makes this commendably clear, but there remains, finally, something troublingly opaque about Kelly’s depiction of a society in which, it seems, anyone is capable of doing anything in order to protect their own.