Enter stage left The Orange Tree Theatre and their Directors’ Festival, a fab idea which allows student directors (from the OTT and St Mary’s University MA in Theatre Directing) the opportunity to direct a short play from an established writer using a professional cast, in a professional theatre with all tickets at £7.50. Quite apart from the selection of plays, I love this. When the selection of plays includes an early James Graham, I love this a lot.
The play in question is Albert’s Boy, a play Graham wrote aged 22 that hasn’t been seen in London since its 2005 premiere, which imagines a meeting between Albert Einstein and family friend, Peter Bucky, recently returned to the US after being released from a POW camp during the Korean War. It’s not as polished as his more recent work (of which I am an obsessive devotee, if you’ve somehow not realised that by now), and at 80 minutes long lacks the space to explore its ideas in as much detail, but it is very much in the same mould: a funny, nuanced, fair minded meditation on a Big Issue. Unsurprisingly, I was a fan.
The Big Issue in question this time is around the existence, or otherwise, of good and evil and the difference between intention and results. Einstein’s role in the creation of the atomic bomb provides the ‘in’ to this huge theme, which is a really interesting angle to take anyway given how overlooked this aspect of his work is. Einstein, the rational minded scientist, is portrayed as suffering from acute, maddening guilt at the dropping of bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the ensuing loss of life. Peter, with his direct experience of war and its horrors, takes the opposing view: that the loss of life was acceptable because it ended the war early and so saved even more lives and, besides, the non-war consequences of Einstein’s atomic research (for example in medicine) are amazing. This is hardly an unheard debate, but the fact of the identities of the two characters makes it far more interesting and resonant than it might otherwise be. The clash between Einstein’s ‘theoretical’ guilt and Peter’s real life experience is an idea returned to several times really effectively as well and adds something to the nuclear debate which is, in my view, almost as interesting in and of itself; Einstein has never been to war so how can he possibly understand it but on the other hand Peter has never been the man behind a weapon that can kill hundreds of thousands of people so how can he possibly understand that?
The play also has a lot to say that has a hugely depressing contemporary resonance. This is not just the obvious point about nuclear proliferation but something more interesting about the nature and use of terror as a weapon in war. The word ‘terrorism’ is never used, but the implication is clear and well drawn out.
On a lighter note, the play is very funny and, joyously, much of the humour is deeply geeky. There is a lot of playing with the popular idea of Einstein the mad scientist and the associated pop culture tropes which works really well, the characterisation of Einstein is really interesting and unexpected throughout, but the physics jokes are even better. A favourite is this exchange: “[Peter] your unified field theory it’s, eh..? [Einstein] Coming together.” If you don’t find this funny then you’re a defective human being.
For all my proselytising about the play, the whole point of this production is of course the direction. Kate Campbell takes the reins here and does so with fantastic poise and assurance. The pacing of this production is almost perfect (I could have lived with some shorter scene changes towards the end of the piece, if that were practically possible) and the creative decisions are all fab. In a theatre as small as the Orange Tree and a play which is literally a two hander there is nowhere to hide for a director and, in Campbell’s case, no need to either. If you didn’t know, I would defy you to spot that there isn’t a more seasoned director at the helm.
The production looks and sounds amazing too. The sound and lighting design is strong, if uncomplicated, throughout but explodes - pun intended - in the final scene when it’s called on to portray an atomic bomb going off. Given the resources and the space available, the end results are pretty spectacular. Simple, but spectacular. I also had mad love for the occasional cheeky inclusion of Atomic by Blondie as incidental music.
The acting is strong as well with Campbell’s and her two actors’ understanding of their characters really interesting and rounded. Robert Gill’s Einstein portrays the heavy emotionality demanded by the text incredibly well and excels in the lighter moments. Andrew Langtree’s Peter is marginally my highlight, conveying the anger and pain of his wartime experiences under a cover of conviviality in a painfully plausible way.
I’ve yet to meet a production of a James Graham play that I don’t get on with and Albert’s Boy is certainly no exception. It’s a really interesting piece, nuanced and cheeky, in a cracking little production from a director who is surely a name to keep an eye out for in the future. It’s also a fantastic opportunity to see the best British playwright around at the moment for £7.50, aka the price of a small glass of warm white wine in most theatres. Plus the Orange Tree’s Directors’ Festival is the sort of initiative that theatre fans should just get behind. I’ll certainly be looking out for it next year.
The Orange Tree Theatre’s Directors’ Festival runs until the 29th July, with Albert’s Boy playing on the 27th and 28th.