Review: Orphans @ King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

📍 King’s Theatre, Edinburgh
📅 TUE 12 APR TO SAT 16 APR 2022
🕖 Evenings 7.30pm | Matinee Sat 2:30pm
🕖 Running time (approx.): 2 hours 55 minutes
👥 Book: Douglas Maxwell
👥 Director: Cora Bissett
👥 Music & Lyrics: Roddy Hart & Tommy Reilly
👥 Set & Costume Design: Emily James
💰 From £14
🎂 16+
🎭 Audio Captioning: Thu 14 April 7.30PM
🎭 Audio Description: Sat 16 April 2.30PM
🎭 BSL – Interpreted – Wed 13 April 7.30PM

Ambitious, hilarious, and touching, Orphans from the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS), is a palpable hit.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Adapted from Peter Mullan’s multi-award winning 1998 movie of the same title, Orphans is a dark, musical comedy chasing the lives of four adult siblings through the night before their mother’s funeral.

An ordinary trip to the pub sets match to fuse, booze and frayed emotions leading adopted son Michael (Reuben Joseph) to start a fight from which he staggers away stabbed. Youngest brother John (Dylan Wood) swears mortal vengeance on the attacker, but not Michael who eschews hospital in hopes of a compensation claim against his employers. If he can just live through the night without dying, he’ll plant his wounded flesh on the factory floor and wait for the greenbacks to roll in.

The siblings gather to say goodbye…Amy Conachan, Dylan Wood, Reuben Joseph, Robert Florence…Credit: Mihaela Bodlovic

This leaves eldest Thomas (Robert Florence) and their wheelchair user sister Sheila (Amy Conachan) to see their mother’s coffin received into the parish Church. Thomas, fiercely protective of his mother’s name, and dignity, intends to sit vigil through the night; Sheila needs to get away, and so vanishes into the streets, alone, and prone to a sticky wheel. Every mourner processes grief in our own ways, and in Orphans said individuality is dialled up to 11.

Can their family survive without its matriarch; do they even have a family with that keystone laid to rest? Each pilgrimages through a dark, stormy Glasgow night of the soul in search for an answer, attended by a gallery of souls plucked from the ether half-way between Charles Dickens and Irvine Welsh.

Thomas (Robert Florence) is in for quite the night…Credit: Mihaela Bodlovic

This might sound like an odd basis for a musical, and a comedy at that, but it most certainly works. The secret? Working-class Scottish, and particularly Glaswegian, humour: that dour capacity to dig laughter from the darkest crevices of the human experience. Not a negation, or distraction from emotion, simply a recognition of life’s absurdity. Orphans doesn’t so much laugh in the face of adversity, but with it.

Drunk philosophers promote universal love across a crowded urinal; victims of sadistic landlords sing of the futility of resistance; men start fights with buses. Paper-girls chant their independence, Sheila wanders a David Lynch worthy fairground, whilst Robert undertakes an ill-fated restoration of a broken religious icon (Think Cecilia Giménez’s notorious 2012 ‘Monkey’ Christ for some suitable flavour). Orphans is a very funny, fearless show, attended by peals of laughter rung from an endlessly entertained audience.

Paul McCole’s Frank leads the cast in song. McCole is absolutely splendid, a sozzled friend to the world and nigh-Shakespearian fool…Credit: Mihaela Bodlovic

Which isn’t to say that the book from Douglas Maxwell is afraid to follow Mullan into darkness, far from it. The lives of the four sojourners stand on the brink: their family, their lives, and their souls at risk of a long, long fall. Bleeding, Michael lurches to his estranged wife’s flat, seeking his infant daughter, and leaving a bloody handprint on her cradle. Blinded by rage John finds common cause with an older cousin Tanga (Harry Ward), each egging the other on to right the injustices in their lives with catastrophic consequences.

Orphans is life at a messy crisis-point, but with crisis often comes the opportunity for change. So it is for the four heroes, each one free to make better choices, to find strength and not only trauma from the familial bonds between disparate personalities together. It’s heartfelt, but more importantly, very human.

I’m loathe to give anything more of the plot away, but in addition to the already welcome presence of a main part created for a wheelchair user, the change of Michael’s character to a black, adopted child certainly offers extra depth to Orphan’s narrative landscape.

Chloe Hodgson, Amy Conachan, Betty Valencia, Amber Sylvia EdwardsSheila finds herself adopted by a radical trio of paper girls…Credit: Mihaela Bodlovic

Hart & Reilly reflect both light and dark in a smashing score, a recognisably Scottish melange of music hall, pub crooner, and west-end ballad. Perhaps the greatest achievement is the magnificently misanthropic ‘Time is Time’. Sung with vim by Louise McCarthy & John McLarnon, it immediately defines Mrs & Mr Hanson as publicans fit to holiday with the Thénardiers. The latter might be immortal money-grubbers, but the Hanson’s run an impromptu prison for disruptive punters in the backroom.

Eat your hearts out Les Misérables, The Hansons are landlords no tae cause any trouble for! Betty Valencia, Martin Quinn, Louise McCarthy, Amber Sylvia Edwards, John McLarnon, Charlie West, Daniella Faakor Damptey…Credit: Mihaela Bodlovic

Vocal performances are strong across the board, though the clarity and power in Cocachan’s voice probably edges the laurel crown. The acting is also consistently excellent: Reuben Joseph is particularly masterful as a soul trapped within his own inequities. The dancing’s none too shabby either, so well done to both Movement Director Vicki Manderson, and to the many members of the cast for whom dance might not feature at the top of their CV’s.

Director Cora Bissett has marshalled a very, very good new musical, one well worthy of a transfer to the West-End, or beyond. It nips along at a fine pace, the humour on point, the timing precise as a Chic Murray monologue. The songs emerge naturally born from the hearts of characters in whom an audience can invest their own hopes, and dreams.

One note, and this is a touch nit-picking, but the fate of Michael’s plan to visit a lawsuit upon his employers is left unclear. Just a line, maybe two, not to resolve it, but to indicate its outcomes is likely needed.

Betty Valencia plays Michael’s (Reuben Jospeh) estrnged wife, and mother of his infant child. One duet is all it takes to explain both the love, and the gulf which lies between them…

Orphans would also certainly benefit from live musicians, rather than a recorded backing, or at least a hybrid model. Though the NTS team do produce a good sound from the often muddy P.A. system of the King’s theatre, likely the best possible, certain vocal registers are a little lost in the mix, draining some power from otherwise well conceived numbers. Emily James’ set is, however, a spectacular, and magically adaptive tribute to the tenements and streets of auld Glasgow.

In the end, for a story which opens on a coffin, Orphans is an unexpectedly hopeful show. It doesn’t claim life isn’t tough, doesn’t pretend it’s not mined with a***holes, or that our sins don’t return to plague us. Orphans just offers us a useful anthem to see us through, “Every Cunt Should Love Every Cunt.”

Orphans will play the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh from April 12th –16th. For more information, and tickets, click here.

Orphans will tour Scotland until the end of April, for tickets and information, click here.