Review: Autumn and Winter, Orange Tree Theatre

“What did you do to me?”

Autumn and Winter, at the Orange Tree in Richmond, opens powerfully with a Stockholm family dinner party coming to an end but debates over a range of subjects still coming thick and fast with predictably liberal Swedish upper-middle-class attitudes prevailing, whether about immigration, drug abuse or the economy. But this is no tidy social affair and the conversation returns over and over again back to themselves and their unique family dynamic. This is mostly driven by the behaviour of younger daughter Ann, relentlessly self-analytical and forever complaining about her struggles as a would-be playwright and single mum in the face of the comparative luxury of the rest of her family.

Lars Norén, little known in this country but one of Sweden’s best playwrights and very popular on the continent, keeps to a naturalistic style here with conversations spilling into each other, dialogue overlapping, people talking over each other whilst Ann behaves likes a spoilt brat and considering this was their first performance, the controlled energy from the cast was rather well calibrated, bouncing off each other well and creating that well-worn sense of long-suffering familial tolerance. But as the play progresses and each character gets their turn to air their long-held grievances and reveal a couple of shocking home truths, matters become a little wearing and, to be honest rather tiresome, as we slowly work our way around the table.

Ann’s constant self-pitying and search for the ‘truth’ about her childhood is contrasted with her high-flying elder sister Ewa’s success in her career and marriage. But in the face of her attention-seeking younger sibling’s antics, Ewa then takes her turn to spill her guts to reveal what toll her successful career has taken on her health and her marriage. Mother also gets in on the action, disabusing her children of some of their notions of their childhood but also revealing her own frustrations with her husband Henrik, at having to live in the constant shadow of her mother-in-law.

There’s some brilliantly casual reveals of earth-shattering information, especially from Diane Fletcher’s icily cool Margareta and the single-mindedness of much of the discourse, everyone is talking but no-one is really listening to each other, adds to the (sometime) naturalistic presentation of this family which is most effective, especially in the way that the allegiances keep shifting constantly around. But the limitations of Norén’s repetitive format does not make for particularly exciting drama nor anything particularly revelatory exposed in this examination, least of all in its low-key ending.

Strongly acted, especially by its women, the aforementioned Fletcher impressing from the off and Lisa Stevenson’s biting selfishness as Ann is excellently portrayed with haughty clipped tones but a nervy physicality as her emotions are super-quick to rise to the boil. The difference between her and Kristin Hutchinson’s elegant trouser-suited Ewa with her glacial calm could not be more marked, though Osmund Bullock’s ineffectual character of a father and husband was perhaps a little too indistinct to really convince. Sam Dowson’s homely design works well in the space which Derek Goldby directs well, keeping the configuration of the family members constantly shifting, although given how much all of them drink (and they get through at least one bottle of wine each plus port and brandy), it was surprising to see no nod to drunkenness from any of them, indeed they let Ewa drive Ann home at the end!

Lars Norén is one of Sweden’s most performed living playwrights and the most obvious comparison one can make would be to Alan Ayckbourn, especially given the darkness of his view of middle-class families as exemplified here. The deeper, more angst-ridden writing here appealed more to me than Mr Ayckbourn of whom I am not really a fan it must be said, as it allowed for acting of a much more powerfully intense quality that is raw and beautifully exposed in the round here at the Orange Tree.

Running time: 105 minutes (without interval)
Programme cost: £2.50
Booking until 28th May
Note: lots of smoking onstage throughout

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