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Winter Solstice
"You've invited someone you've met on a train. I can't believe it. Today's Christmas!" — Bettina
Winter Solstice
Dominic Rowan as Albert (Photo: Stephen Cummiskey)
In a joint production between the Actors Touring Company and the Orange Tree Theatre, Ramin Gray directs another Roland Schimmelpfennig 2013-14 play, translated by David Tushingham. It's set in an almost dysfunctional middle class German household.

Schimmelpfennig's plays have detailed stage directions which are spoken by the cast and which give insights into the subtext of his characters. The opportunities for direction and acting are redoubled as other members of the cast hear what the others think about them. It is clever and witty and makes for really interesting dramatic encounters.

The family is full of tension. Bettina (Laura Rogers) doesn't want to say hello to her mother Corinna (Kate Fahy) instead leaving her husband Albert (Dominic Rowan) to make awkward and stilted conversation with his mother in law. This is something for Albert to complain about. It is Christmas Eve and the family are preparing for the celebration of the nativity but Corinna has brought with her Rudolph, (Nicholas Le Prevost) a strange man, not just a stranger to her daughter's family, but a man Corinna herself has only just met that afternoon on a train. Rudolph insists on calling Corinna by her middle name, Gudrun.

We are told that "Usually the mood between mother and daughter is very tense at the beginning of these visits. It is then alleviated with a good and expensive wine but later, by the third day at the latest, there is an argument." This situation makes us smile as we remember the adage that fish and guests go off after three days. Having Rudolph with her, gives Corinna an ally as the older couple flirt unashamedly with each other. Of course we have to remember that this is a Schimmelpfennig play and the raconteur and talented pianist that Rudolph appears to be will bring a more sinister agenda to the Christmas celebrations in this family.

Lizzie Clachan's meta-theatrical set has functional tables with the stuff and props of a rehearsal room. This gives the play an other worldliness to reinforce those spoken descriptions of Albert and Laura's house, reminding us that it is acting we are seeing and interrupting the suspension of disbelief.

Albert has written books about Germany's past with titles like "Extermination" and "An Incomplete History of Human Experiments" and "Dictatorship and Death". We are told he is a publisher, sociologist, historian and essayist and he seems to specialise in the death camps of the Third Reich and complaining. Albert also exhibits hypochondriac symptoms in consuming his medication recklessly.

The performances are memorable. Dominic Rowan's wounded husband is facing up to his wife's flirtation with his best friend, the artist Konrad (Milo Twomey) and the intrusion of Rudolph onto the family scene. Kate Fahy is magnificent and makes us squirm as she eyes up Rudolph making us feel she is falling in love and that she is old enough to know better. She is a typical passive aggressive but with a vicious tongue. Nicholas Le Prevost is very controlled and cold as the intruder who brings to the table a history modern Germany wishes had never happened, while flirting with the woman he insists on calling Gudrun.

For a play where many of the cast sit round the tables, the director has sensitively allowed movement in the Orange Tree's "in the round", or rather square, setting. I suspect that if we had sat on the other sides, there too we would have seen the almost imperceptible visual and quirky asides of the cast. The subtlety is admirable, especially the moments when we hear then overheard sounds of conversation from another room which we cannot quite make out.

I have deliberately not revealed the shocking conclusion to this play but I promise you it will have every one of you on the edge of your seat. As an avant garde writer, Schimmelpfennig whose name means mouldy penny or miser shows the generosity of his craft and his contribution to work which engages and makes us fearful of a resurgence of the right.

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Winter Solstice
Written by Roland Schimmelpfennig
Translated by David Tushingham
Directed by Ramin Gray
Starring: Dominic Rowan, Kate Fahy, Nicholas Le Prevost, Laura Rogers, Milo Twomey
Design: Lizzie Clachan
Lighting Design: Jack Knowles
Sound Design: Alexander Caplen
A joint production from the Actors Touring Company and the Orange Tree Theatre
Running time: One hour 50 minutes with no interval
Box Office: 020 8940 3633
Booking to 11th February 2017
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 18th January 2016 performance at The Orange Tree Theatre, 1 Clarence Street, Richmond, Surrey TW9 2SA (Rail/Tube: Richmond)
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