Michael Napier Brown
Alan Franks’ new drama at the Orange Tree takes place in the disused bedroom of a West London house. Helena and Sebastian, a married couple in late middle age, are clearing the room before the movers come. Its a task that dredges up its fair share of buried emotions: this was the house Helena grew up, and now it needs to be sold to pay for her ailing mothers care home charges.
Their daughter Amanda is not too happy at this prospect. Still living with her parents, and with no real plans of moving on, she had vaguely hoped the house would be hers one day. A somewhat spoiled young woman, she sees the selling of the house only in terms of what she stands to lose.
As they pack things away and sift through old possessions, Helenas estranged brother Tony arrives on the scene. An aid worker, living in South America, he hasnt been home in over seventeen years. Its clear that something major has pulled this family apart; unspoken pain lies poorly concealed just below the surface. Franks is an intelligent, elegant writer – theres real wit and vibrancy in some of the language – and his characters are well rounded and intriguing. The strongest scenes by far take place between Helena and Tony as they discuss their mothers descent into “blankness;” and a heartbreaking moment when an increasingly drunken Sebastian confesses his failings to Tony, a moment that begins in a fairly amusing fashion but ends up somewhere quite different and quite dark.
Auriol Smith gives a strong, subtle performance as the brittle, complex but not unlikeable Helena. Her work is nicely complimented by Michael Shaw as her younger brother Tony, a man whose principles may not run as deeply as he would like to make out. And as Sebastian, James Woolley is excellent, equally comfortable portraying both the comic and tragic aspects of his character. Acting-wise the only false note comes from Octavia Walters who is slightly flat and mannered as Amanda. Sam Dowsons simple but effective set design makes good use of the Orange Tree space, which with its stained floorboards and seating in the round, feels rather like some sort of attic room anyway.
Unfortunately things go somewhat awry in the second act, with Franks introducing some confusing and unnecessary subplots about evil pharmaceutical companies and an elusive 20,000. Its hard to see what hes trying to do or to say with these developments; theres a sense of anger in the writing, but its resigned rather than polemical. The play doesnt benefit from these added elements – they feel as if theyve been crow-barred in to an essentially domestic setup. As his characters carefully clear the set, boxing and wrapping, stripping away the debris and the clutter, its as if the play somehow seems to get messier. And a bleak and abrupt conclusion does nothing to rectify matters.
During the first act a Waitrose bag sits prominently on one side of the stage – a telling choice of prop – this is a Waitrose kind of a play: very West London and more than a tad middle aged. Theres some fine acting on display, and some shining dialogue, but ultimately Previous Convictions is just too unfocused as a piece of theatre, its not nearly as compelling as it could have been.