Four siblings face each other over their mother’s coffin. They have one final night with her before she’ll be laid in the ground. There’s nothing to say and everything to say. But before the long night begins, they pop into the pub for a quick pint. And so the National Theatre of Scotland’s brand new adaptation of Orphans begins.
Fans of the cult film by Peter Mullan will be familiar with the story: A drunken fracas in the pub leaves Michael wounded and roaming the streets seeking revenge; John has his own axe to grind; oldest brother Thomas is determined to spend every moment he can with his ma – until an act of god intervenes, and Sheila is at last facing the opportunity to escape the family’s grip. Cue a helter skelter night of confessions, impulsive actions, and fairground attractions – with a healthy dose of prawn crackers on the side.
This full-on, foul-mouthed production is adapted from the film by leading playwright, Douglas Maxwell, and brought to life on stage by the multi-talented Cora Bissett. A whole heap of sassy, spirited, soulful songs are flung into the mix, penned by Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly. If bad language isn’t your thing, this might not be the show for you; ten minutes in, the rambunctious cast are hollering the brilliantly sing-along-able “Every Cunt Should Love Every Cunt”. If you’re made of sterner stuff, strap in and enjoy the ride.
There are some cracking performances from a consistently strong cast. Robert Florence as Thomas is magnificent – perfectly contained in his grief and making easy, carefully enunciated work of his soaring, eloquent musical numbers. Amy Conachan’s Sheila is forlorn and feisty by turn with a gorgeous plaintive quality in her vocals. There are also plenty of cracking cameos – look out for the fiercely spirited Paper Girls – though the total stars of this performance are the two BSL interpreters, Catherine King and Yvonne Strain. Seamlessly incorporated into the staging and exquisitely lit so they never upstage but are always visible, King and Strain form a part of the seething dance through the streets of Glasgow.
Emily James has fashioned a pink ‘sandstone’ tenement that trundles, forms, and reforms across the stage, seething with moody, down-at-heel life. Lizzie Powell‘s lighting design is moody, atmospheric and artful, casting an eerie mysticism into the crypt-like church, then pulsating with neon life for the quasi-rave scene when Sheila and her newfound friends visit the shows.
This is a bold and boisterous production from NTS. With a run-time of just under three hours, you could lose a few songs and the story wouldn’t suffer. Yet a big cast, ambitious and intricate set, 20 musical numbers, and an onstage storm that brings a roof down all make for a fantastic way to mark their return to Scotland’s largest theatres post-pandemic. As we stagger into our second year of life in a pandemic – amidst all of the grief and the loss that goes with that – watching this gutsy Scottish family grin, grimace, and stumble through what that means for life hereafter might serve as some sort of catharsis.