The Orange Tree’s latest production in its current season of work by women dramatists begins with a striking opening sequence. A series of characters march across the stage in a regimented fashion, putting on and taking off hats as they go. It’s stylised but effective introduction, and one that captures much of what’s to come.
This is a play about duty and drudgery, the ‘chains’ of the title are marriage and family, responsibilities, the things that tie you to the ground when in your heart you dream of flying. Written in 1909, Elizabeth Barker’s intriguing play concerns the plight of Charley Wilson, a hard working clerk, a quill pusher, at a City firm. When his friend Fred quits his job in order to move to Australia, to take a chance on a new life, something stirs within Charley.
Though contentedly married to Lily, Charley’s life is one of hard graft and ceaseless routine, living from Sunday to Sunday and struggling to make ends meet. When his friend announces that he is going to try and make a better life for himself, Charley is surprised to discover how much the idea of leaving everything behind appeals to him, how restless he is in his current existence.
His situation is paralleled by the character of his sister-in-law Maggie. While Charley’s wife Lily is a sweet, placid soul, Maggie has fire inside her; though she is engaged to marry a wealthy man and is guaranteed a comfortable life, she burns to do something more, to see something more of the world to live. And while she has to deal with the added limitations imposed on her by her sex, she sympathises with Charley’s predicament and urges him to follow his instincts even if that means upheaval and hardship in the short term.
Barker’s play paints a fascinating picture of middle class life in pre-First World War England. A Sunday afternoon sing-song around the piano is given a distinctly ironic twist as the characters sing Count Your Blessings, while Charley, denied a much-needed raise at work, sits alone and grapples with the idea of starting over in another country. The ending also has a pleasantly ambiguous kick to it, a darkness that rather surprised me.
Auriol Smith’s production ticks a lot of Orange Tree boxes. The play is performed in a solid, period-appropriate fashion, gently paced and even complete with clunky off-stage ‘comedy’ moments; the detailed sets and costumes are, again ,in keeping with the period of the piece and the ensemble cast are of a very high standard, especially Justin Avoth as Charley and Orange Tree regular Octavia Walters as Maggie. But though stately in places, the production cuts through to the angry heart of the drama, that a life of constant clock-watching and worry is no life at all, and that sometimes ‘the done thing’ isn’t always the right thing.