Imagining the future can be a hard task in your twenties; each day is beset by renewed anxiety about where you’ll be – and what you’ll be doing – next week, next month, next year. And it’s even more difficult to conceive of when you throw an apocalypse into the mix.
With all the hype going on in Scotland this month, it’s necessary to be reminded that the artistic world down South and in London doesn’t go on hiatus for all of August, but continues producing exciting new work, particularly as part of the Camden Fringe festival. Michelle Payne’s debut play Orchid, written with Daniel Len and directed by James Milton, conjures a bleak world after ‘The Fall’, where human survivors are living in the underground tube network. The story follows a group of five friends, who form part of a community who trade their supplies but are under constant threat of being sieged by another larger group like King’s Cross. Against her friends’ protests, and the on-going fight for safety, Orchid (Payne) wants to do the impossible: find a way back to the surface, to a world that she can now barely remember. For her, anything would be better than the darkness where night and day are indistinguishable. Orchid touches on similar imagery and ideas as other post-apocalyptic dramas (scenes from The Road, The Hunger Games, and Children of Men flashed through my mind while I was watching Orchid’s journey unravel) although the play’s scope is certainly more London-centric. Despite the limited stage space of the Moors Bar Theatre, the production manages to envisage a huge landscape of detritus and decay. The costume and lighting design show inventive touches, including the slightly wacky use of torches. A gentle score, composed by Tom Baynton, also accompanies the action.
Although the production involves a diverse creative input, it’s clear that Payne, as writer and producer (as well as playing the title role) is the real driving force behind the piece. Her performance as Orchid is alive and engaged, and the character’s speeches are refreshingly poetic. Her hunger to look for something more, the natural world from which she descended, baffles her more practically minded companions, and especially their group leader Thomas (Jimmy Jameson), although she does receive support from the more hot-headed Kane (Dan Jameson). Emma Pritchard and Will Richards, who play siblings Grace and Jack, complete the impassioned yet thoughtful performances of this ensemble.
While Orchid has already finished its short run at the Camden Fringe, the creative team will hopefully regroup again for further festival outings in the next year (watch this space). The hour of the play feels brief – there is so much content tearing at the seams that I felt it could easily expand into a longer work, allowing the audience to learn more about this world and each character’s journey to this point. This play has come from a place of passion and frustration, its makers say, and the need to widen access to creative work to the many, not the few. However, it’s a frustration that is possibly borne from something more ominous; Payne writes, in her programme note, about living in a conflicted time. A similar feeling is echoed in a recent Evening Standard interview with playwright Simon Stephens, in which he describes our current world as one of ‘profound safety but with a deeply troubling sense that something awful is about to happen.’ That sense of unknowing, which she and Len have successfully captured in their writing, completely pervades our current culture of media desensitization. Is there still a world above, and beyond, our heads, and, if so, what does it look like? What happens when we scratch through the darkness?Like Orchid, we need to wake up and go looking for the light.
Orchid played 23-25 August 2015, at Moor Bar in Crouch End.
(c) Joanna Lally, 2015