Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Squirrels / The After-Dinner Joke, Orange Tree Theatre

Review: Squirrels / The After-Dinner Joke, Orange Tree Theatre

Published in Time Out, 27.05.2014

Two curios courtesy of the Orange Tree’s annual emerging directors’ showcase: first an early, absurdist David Mamet short about writer’s block; then a tricksy 1978 Caryl Churchill play, written for television, about the ethical complexities of charity. As double-bills go, it’s supremely disjointed: whimsy followed by righteousness; bathos then balls.

Churchill’s is by far the better play – even if director Sophie Boyce plonks it onstage with little fuss and less design. Not that it needs either, per se. The After-Dinner Joke cuts to the chase as only Churchill can, and sketch after sketch skewers our assumptions about the simple virtues of charitable giving.

Hinging around a wholesome young charity worker who is desperate to do good, the play remonstrates against celebrities using causes to get publicity; charities that behave like businesses; and our self-serving, infantile obsession with earning sponsorship through inane activities when we could just donate. We never get answers, but this acute piece of agitprop implicates every one of us.

Trouble is you have to sit through Squirrels first. Mamet’s play is a punishing self-indulgence that spins nonsense and goes nowhere. A writer works on a story about a man and a squirrel in a park, but he’s been searching for the right first line for 15 years. He hires an assistant and dictates alternatives – Man feeds squirrel? Squirrel bites man? One man, two squirrels? – then discards them. Maybe the squirrels are the problem. What about geese? A cleaner empties the bin nightly.

The kooky charm of this quickly fades and, for all that Lewis Gray’s production basically works – you’re left with an inconsequential piece of writing about the writer’s art, craft and cash-flow problems.

Photograph: Robert Day

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