Omnibus Theatre, London – until 17 February 2019
The show must go on… but at what cost? In Jean Anouilh’s The Orchestra, set just after World War II, petty in-fighting and lingering suspicions between the members of an orchestra in a small French spa town contrast sharply with their jaunty repertoire. Under the watchful eye of the manager, they must play on despite mounting tensions, uncomfortable revelations, and an unexpected climax to the evening’s entertainment.
Set in real time, the 50-minute play alternates between musical interludes and the snatches of conversation in between, and sometimes during, the performances. From these we learn that leader Mme. Hortense (Amanda Osborne) and cellist Suzanne (Stefania Licari) are love rivals, fighting inexplicably over the orchestra’s meek pianist – and sole male – M. Leon (Pedro Casarin); violinists Patricia (Luna Dai) and Pamela (Sarah Waddell) clash over their very different views on sex and relationships; and flautist Leona (Jessica Hulme) is forced to sit and gasp appreciatively as Ermeline (Charlotte Laporte) talks at length about her marital problems. And all the while, the manager (Toph Enany) prowls in and out of the theatre – having also made his presence felt in the bar before the show – as a constant reminder of the pressure to paste on a smile and perform.
There’s an undercurrent of dark humour in Anouilh’s text, translated by Jeremy Sams, though it’s more of the satirical than the laugh out loud variety. Bickering and breakdowns are delivered with conviction by the internationally diverse cast, with Osborne particularly enjoyable as she tries to keep the group upbeat and focused on the task at hand.
While the other characters’ conversations establish a backdrop of ongoing frustration with their own lives, the love triangle that connects Mme. Hortense with Licari’s melodramatic Suzanne and Casarin’s perpetually flustered M. Leon is more immediate and explosive, providing some drama and preventing the play from becoming too static.
Unfortunately the musical scenes in Kristine Landon-Smith’s production – with the exception of the final one – don’t hold our attention in the same way, and this frequent loss of engagement means the play never quite takes off. The cast does a convincing job of miming along with the recorded soundtrack, but besides a few sideways glances and the odd bit of dialogue, there’s often not that much going on.
Perhaps this is deliberate, to emphasise the divide between the players’ professional and personal demeanours; that certainly comes across very effectively. But it does mean that after a while – each piece is a good couple of minutes – the audience is left with not much to look at, the cheerful tunes we’re listening to (composed by Felix Cross) already having been dismissed by members of the orchestra themselves as little more than background music for a polite but indifferent audience.
Most of us have, at some point, had to put aside workplace squabbles and present a united front in the name of professionalism. Anouilh’s play presents a heightened version of that scenario, taking it to absurd lengths and setting it in a very particular time and place, but it remains enjoyably relatable – and this production, while not perfect, is a welcome revival.
The Orchestra is at the Omnibus Theatre until 17th February.
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