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Review - Orca

Orca – review (Sewell Barn, 11 June 2022)

The tagline of Orca is “what makes a community tolerate the unthinkable”, and so I was expecting a reasonable sized cast to form the community, so it was a bit of a surprise that there were only five characters in the show. Not that it mattered, as the five actors they had were strong enough to carry the story by themselves, and the good thing about each of them having so much time on stage is that you can give a good analysis of their performance.

What I will say straight off the bat is that I enjoyed the show. But to be perfectly honest, given that the play won the Papatango prize for new writing, I was expecting a little more from the story itself. This is of course just my view, and far be it from me to say what constitutes good writing, but nothing about the plot particularly grabbed me. Maybe I missed something in it, who knows, but all I know is that my personal yardstick when analysing a show is “would I want to be in it?” and with Orca, I’d have said no.

To me, what made the show was strong performances by the cast, innovative set design and staging, and great use of music throughout. That seems a stupid thing to say, as these are all major components of any great show, but ultimately, if the script isn’t all that, then the show can only reach a certain height. As I said, that’s my opinion, but that’s not a reflection on the efforts of the cast and production team.

To give you a little more insight, the title Orca refers to the fact that the play takes place on a remote island where the fish stocks often fall prey to Orca pods. Presumably to appease the gods, every year, the community re-enacts a sacrifice where one of the island’s young girls is offered up, and the sacrificial lamb is known as a Daughter. Only something a bit more sinister appears to befall the island’s daughter’s each year.

Anyway, to the performance itself, and you had five actors who each brought a different type of energy on stage with them. Emma Smith played the focal point of the show, a character called Fan, who desperately wants to be selected as the island’s daughter, a role to which she is naïve about the full horrors that this involves. Sarah Jenkins played her elder sister, Maggie, who knows only too well what being the island’s daughter is all about.

Emma was a joy to watch, illuminating the space with a sort of sweet, idealistic innocence. Her projection was superb throughout and every line delivered perfectly, which was no mean feat given some of the flowery sentiments her character came out with, which would have been easy to play in a melodramatic way, but she got the balance spot on, all the way up to the crushing moment at the end where her fate is realised. Sarah had a slightly harder part to fulfil as the badly damaged elder sister, but she pulled it off well. She mostly had an unrelentingly gloomy and at times desperate part to play, but Sarah created some genuinely sweet moments when playing opposite her younger sister, as it gave her the opportunity to show her softer, more maternal side.

The two sisters’ father was played by Pip Dunn, and he portrayed another damaged character. Pip was able to show the full range, the sweet caring paternal side of his character when dealing with Fan, the struggle with not knowing how to deal with his seemingly wayward eldest daughter, the turmoil at trying to preserve his business and reputation. And he did it so well, it was a really impressive performance, and another actor who displayed an excellent ability to keep a lid on some of the more dramatic moments, without underselling it or overacting in any way.

The same could also be said of Abi Tacon who played Gretchen. Her character was the island’s daughter last year, and when we first come across her, she has seemingly just washed ashore and is barely conscious. Rather than playing up to the horrors that she’s fallen victim to though, Abi gave a really fragile interpretation, and was thoroughly convincing as someone struggling to come to terms with enormous trauma.

And finally, Philip Rowe, as the sinister yet smiling Father, the island’s priest and also predator. Philip’s part was by no means the largest in this, but he probably gave the most impactful performance. There was this air of menace beneath the apparent charm that he brought on stage with him, and he really played his part in creating such an unsettling atmosphere.

The set for the show too was genuinely impressive, their set designer had built the front end of a boat to form the setting for the opening scene, which was then winched up by ropes by one of the cast, which allowed us to see the underside, where a makeshift fold-out table had been cleverly installed and shelving was also housed. It was very innovative, and the use of the ropes to hoist up the boat just added to feel of a working community.

As I said, whether I was just missing something with the script or not, I’m not sure, but that shouldn’t detract from what was a superbly performed and produced piece of work, so well done to everyone involved.


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