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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
Saint's Day
by Lizzie Loveridge

I have missed the moment of discovery.
-- Charles
Saint's Day
Ed Stoppard as Charles Heberden (Photo: Robert Day)

The Orange Tree Theatre is London's only permanent theatre in the round and seats under a hundred. It was founded by the present Artistic Director, Sam Walters in 1971 in a room above The Orange Tree pub. It moved to its own purpose-built space across the road in 1991, behind the fašade of a former Victorian school in Richmond, west London. For several months I have been hearing enthusiastic critics who urged me to keep a close eye on developments at The Orange Tree.

I went to see a revival of John Whiting's play, Saint's Day, its first London production since 1965 and a rare event. Saint's Day won First Prize at the 1951 Festival of Britain play competition. Although Whiting wrote several plays, it is only The Devils produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1961, and ten years later made into a film by Ken Russell, that he is widely remembered for. I have to admit that I found much of Saint's Day baffling, perplexing, as did the original London critics who did not understand it.

It is a play that is full of symbolism and imagery. I will attempt a summary. Writer and political philosopher Paul Southman (Leonard Fenton) lives with his granddaughter Stella (Celia Nelson) and her younger, artist husband, Charles Heberden (Ed Stoppard) in a house in the country with their manservant, John Winter (David Gooderson). They are alienated from the inhabitants of the nearby village who view them as the enemy. The play is set on 25th January which is Paul Southman's birthday and the date of the conversion of Saint Paul. A handsome, academic and poet Robert Procathren (Ben Warwick) is due to take Southman to a celebration dinner in London when three soldiers who have escaped from a military prison cause havoc in the village. First their dog is killed, then Stella is shot by Procathren by accident who joins the soldiers, fires the village and takes Southman and Heberden to be executed.

I found the first act which is concerned with Stella and Charles' marriage rather stilted, dated, like a 1940s film, with this down at heel middle class family living in isolation. It is the entrance of the lively Procathren in the second act which seems to hold out hope for change. Pregnant Stella hopes he will take her away from her loveless marriage, that Procathren will raise money for her grandfather, that Charles will agree to sell his paintings. Stella has some kind of premonition of her own death when she talks about "a call from another room". Procathren, the most civilised and beautiful of the cast becomes as violent and as rough as the rioting escaped soldiers in an ending to play of desperation.

The performances from the cast are thorough. Celia Nelson has a difficult role as Stella who is many years older than her artist husband. Leonard Fenton convinces as the old campaigner. I especially liked Ben Warwick's Procathren who progresses from dandyish confidence to dishevelled rioter. Ed Stoppard too shows acting promise. David Gooderson is delightful as the indispensable and surviving manservant.

At three hours this is a wordy introduction to John Whiting's plays but such is Sam Walters' enthusiasm for them, I think more will follow. It is a brave decision for a Fringe theatre to put on difficult plays. The next production from the Orange Tree will be Engaged an 1877 comedy from WS Gilbert just before his partnership with Arthur Sullivan began to flourish.

Saint's Day
Written by John Whiting
Directed by Sam Walters

With: Leonard Fenton, Celia Nelson, Ed Stoppard, David Gooderson, Ben Warwick, Robert Benfield, John Paul Connolly, Chris Porter, James Lloyd Pegg, Sam Dowson, Alicia Davies/Madeleine Mathias/Elisa Spanu, Frances Billington, Jean Braithwaite, Mary Davies, Samantha Hartley, Deborah Kuun, Joanna Medd, Mandy Wright.
Designer: Tim Meacock
Lighting Designer: John Harris
Running time: Three hours with two intervals
Box Office: 020 8940 3633
Booking to 23rd November 2002
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 17th October 2002 performance at the Otrange Tree Theatre, 1 Clarence Street, Richmond Surrey, TW9 2SA (Tube Station: Richmond)
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