REVIEW: “Oranges & Ink” at Tristan Bates Theatre

True, close and enduring friendships between women are precious and bountiful. How much more so in a realm or an age that affords women no status or rights under law. England in the Seventeenth Century, to take the example used in this new co-production between A Monkey With Cymbals and Tomorrow Theatre Company. At an hour long it is short as a nib and sweet as a Spanish orange. It is also funny, intimate and full of insights. Particularly if you are interested in history, theatre or the history of theatre. Or in women.

It is refreshing to see a portrayal of the legendary Nell Gwyn without the masculine filters of titillation and censure. It is refreshing to see a portrayal of Aphra Behn at all. Both theatrical (and social) pioneers, they were very different women but good friends. I like to think that their friendship was as CLAIRE LOUISE AMIAS has written it here.

Amias also takes the role of Behn, creating a shrewd and noble pragmatist. In this captivating performance she is waspish and daring too. And sometimes vulnerable. As close to being an out lesbian as her times allow, she is still a hostage to the changeable attitudes and decrees of men. Everybody is. Fashion is a lot more dangerous than we know it today and to find oneself out of fashion can be life threatening. The King of England is still held to be a living instrument of God. The Christian Protestant God of course. Even setting a play in Rome can land a writer like Behn in trouble, no matter how popular her previous plays.

SARAH LAWRIE is just delicious as Nell Gwyn. There is the cheekiness that helped to make Nell’s name and the expected stagey flourishes but they are rounded out by something more sober and sad. Like her friend she is subject to the precarious whims of fashion and favour but even more so. Here is a woman who has no say in the lives of her sons by Charles II. She hardly ever sees them. The pain of it scores Lawrie’s face whenever they are mentioned.

Both actors are bright and wickedly funny in their bouts of gossiping, shade-throwing, play acting or tipsy dancing. I swear I saw Nell’s hated rival ‘Squintabella’ up there on the stage! It is the more reflective, quieter scenes where they impress most though. They become such real and timeless women, wholly convincing as true friends.

There is perfect intimacy in Oranges & Ink; the intimacy between the two characters and the intimacy of a small-venue audience drawn right in. Candlelight helps, while the gorgeous period costumes and the plaintive music of the time create a whole environment.

It is extremely well paced, it covers a surprising amount of ground as a story and paints a vivid picture of life in a particular place and time. It would surely go down well at festivals in its current form but I would love to see it expand into a full length play. I long to spend more time in the company of these brilliant women.

Written by: Claire Louise Amias

Directed by: Alex Pearson

Sarah Lawrie (Nell Gwyn)

Claire Louise Amias (Aphra Behn)

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