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Review: Orphans

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Orphans is poignant and provocative. This musical is about four siblings (Sheila, John, Thomas and Michael) who have just lost their mother. It is the night before the funeral, and they are saying goodbye to the body when they decide to go to the pub. At the pub, everything seems to disintegrate; a fight breaks out, and Michael gets stabbed. Only John finds this out and swears to kill Duncan, the stabber.

Meanwhile, Sheila and Thomas go back to the chapel, as Thomas intends to stay the night, Sheila has other ideas and leaves the Chapel. She meets three paper girls and nearly doesn’t attend the funeral due to a feeling of voicelessness and helplessness. Michael finds himself imprisoned in a pub and is only able to attend the funeral with the help of Bernadette (a paper girl). John nearly kills Duncan and feels unworthy to attend the funeral. Eventually, they all make it, meeting Thomas at the Chapel, who is blinded by his dedication to his dead mother. Michael collapses partway through, and Sheila finds her voice, ordering him to the hospital. John leaves with Sheila and Michael. In the end, the siblings all converge by the graveside. Michael is out of hospital, Sheila is moving away and asks Thomas to come and have a last meal with them. He nearly refuses due to his duties to his mother’s grave, but eventually gives in. 

The soundtrack perfectly augments the emotional response of the audience. The ratio of music to dialogue is perfect; there is enough dialogue to create connections between the characters and empathy in the audience. The musical numbers are important as they give the audience space to breathe and process the show, which is very harrowing in parts. I think the grievous emotions are intensified by the moments of comedy. Such moments include Thomas (who is bald) motioning down to his groin when he is required to place a bit of his hair in his mother’s coffin, and who eats the bread of Christ resulting in the church roof leaking, eventually collapsing in on itself.  This musical takes the viewer on an emotional rollercoaster and encourages the audience to think about classism, economic injustice, and societal discrimination. 

Orphans is politically aware and encourages important discussions. The musical shows Thomas’ patronisation of Sheila as ridiculous. The paper girls discriminate against Sheila at first by asking if she can read. Carole (played by Amber Sylvia Edwards) explains the inherent discrimination in the question. We see Sheila struggle to create a voice for herself in a society that gives her none. Sheila disagrees with the label ‘carer’ that Thomas gives himself, now that their mother is gone.

Carole and Sheila become good friends towards the end. However, this is darkened as Sheila reminds Carole that she paid her to take her to the fair. By the end of the play, Sheila is the person who ensures Michael gets medical aid, and becomes the first sibling to move out of Glasgow. The power Sheila gives herself provides the audience with the hope that we can prevent ableism in our societies too.

This musical contains some poignant theatrical moments. For instance, when Michael starts to fight Duncan in the pub, the slowing of the music and acting means the audience viscerally feels time slow down too. John chases Duncan through the streets, and the cars are enacted by running cast members, which creates an atmosphere of anxiety. The sensory overload of the scenery and lighting in the festival scene encourages the audience to feel the characters’ feelings of chaos and incomprehensibility. 

The musical shows the deeply complicated and harrowing aspects of a reality complicated by systemic injustices, loneliness, and discrimination. The show does not solve any of the issues explored in the story (unjust police systems, poor working conditions, street violence, discrimination) and this left me feeling hopeless and anxious. The musical ends with the message that there is no such thing like family, which I think is too twee and optimistic given the social injustice we witness. The final scene have white lighting and soft clothing, which seems to symbolise the resolving of problems which the show did not achieve. Instead, the play shows small moments of respite and hope; Sheila gains her voice back from societal discrimination, Bernadette helps free Michael and John prevents himself from killing Duncan. However, the lack of resolution is what one can expect from a musical. The show does not need to pretend it has solved complicated issues.

I wholeheartedly recommend this show. However, be prepared to be deeply affected by characters, who will stay with you for a long time.

Showing Times: King’s Theatre, Edinburgh Tuesday 12th– Saturday 16th and Eden Court, Inverness Tuesday 26th– Saturday 30th April

Image by Peter Dibdin, courtesy of National Theatre of Scotland