Oliver Ford Davies
JB Priestley’s The Linden Tree, currently being revived at the ever-reliable Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, is a thought-provoking and often complex look at British society after the Second World War, focusing on one family over the course of one week.
The play is set in the spring of 1947 and Priestley wrote it in February of that year, during the famously hard winter that shook Britain, and during a food and fuel crisis. There is a real sense of isolation in this drama; all the action takes place in the study of Professor Linden, the family patriarch, and yet Priestley makes you very aware of the terrible bleakness of the landscape, people and society outside of the room.
On the surface The Linden Tree appears to be a nice, cosy family drama in which Linden (played divinely by Oliver Ford Davies ), a history professor at Burmanley University, and his wife are visited by all their children for the first time in many years.
Mrs Linden, played by Anna Carteret, is deeply unhappy living in Burmanley and longs for the days when her husband taught at Oxford. She is desperate for him to retire so they can move away, and since it is her husbands sixty-fifth birthday she wants her children to help her convince him to resign.
However, Priestley’s concerns go beyond the domestic and the play encompasses all manner of issues of consequence after the war. Professor Linden is the titular tree, his strength, balance and quiet views are in stark contrast to his family. Oliver Ford Davies gives a masterful performance in the role, as a man who, despite the disinterest of his students and changing educational requirements, conveys a real passion for history and life.
In contrast each member of his family seems to struggle to define and hold on to their own ideals. His daughter Marion, played by Hannah Yelland, has married a Frenchman and become a Catholic and is now deeply disgusted by the drab faithlessness that she finds in both her family and Britain as a whole.
Her sister Jean on the other hand – played by Elizabeth Marmur with a quiet but desperate sadness – is a doctor and as such believes in sense, reason and the importance of science. Inevitably there are clashes; though sometimes the play pits these two characters a little too deliberately against one another. The involving performances however ensure that this never feels overly forced.
They also contrast beautifully with Roger Barclay’s portrayal of Rex Linden, who since the war, has decided to believe in nothing and enjoy every minute; his is a performance of great charm and wit. Equally strong is Jennifer Higham, as Dinah the youngest of the Linden children and the one whose faith in humanity best mirrors her father’s. Higham’s performance is masterful and brings a love of life and a maturity beyond her years to this character.
The Orange Tree has succeeded in bringing together a truly wonderful cast for this production, and while Priestley’s play is one of gentle charms, it is a pleasure to see a such a high-quality ensemble at work, so obviously enjoying themselves.
It is however necessary to single out Oliver Ford Davies who gives a performance of rare skill, truly moving – he will also feature in the same venue’s production of Larkin with Women later in the year, which as a result has leapt up my list of must sees for this spring.