Orphans – King’s Theatre

Music and Lyrics by Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly

Directed by Cora Bissett 

Adapted by Douglas Maxwell

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A city without another of similar ilk, Glasgow sees layers of history, strife and raucous wonderment collide in a myriad of uninhibited pitches – almost a living, breathing paradox of a city. Nowhere more evident than in Peter Mullan’s 1998 meticulously grim and pitch-dark cinematic comedy Orphans, which finds the four siblings of an archetypal Glasgow matriarch struggling in their various ways the night before her funeral.

The halberd of success for any production is not its transition from Broadway to the Westend, or even from the birthplace of Western theatre in Athens to the extravagance of Tokyo’s Bunraku – it’s can a Weegie show tackle a Lothian audience. Oh aye, it can. Humour aside, the dynamic and cultural spectrum of Douglas Maxwell’s adaptation lifts Orphans while maintaining faith in Mullen’s dark edges.

The National Theatre of Scotland’s staging, directed by Cora Bissett, with music and lyrics from Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly amplifies the intended aesthetics and expressive into a melancholic, lewd, and grief-stricken evening which is one hell of a night out – though is sorely missing a live band. Orphans is a rarity, an adaptation that stands as an autonomous being that captures the hypnotic appeal of the Clyde, as the Flynn’s separate the evening before their mother’s funeral. Some out of grief, others frustrations, and another intends on spending the night alongside the departed within the church – but will they all make it to the service?

And while inherently instilled with a Dear Geen Place heart, Orphans channels distinct Scottish moxie and brass through its lyrical construction, dark tongue, and significant aura that even through the suffering and turmoil – things might just be alright. Occasionally, the stereotypes skirt the edges of Chewin’ The Fat territory, but if you’ve ever walked for a half-loaf and pint of milk in Castlemilk, stereotypes sometimes have a basis. The heightened sense of aggression and ease of deployment may be off-putting to some, but there’s an argument to be made both to the musical excessive emotions, but also the heart of our sleeves approach to Scottish culture. 

Nowhere is this more evident than the belter of a soundtrack, a veritable playground onstage as Emily James’ engagingly visionary set-pieces unveils our cast as we seamlessly transition place and time. The tenements and ramshackle pubs become the ideal settings for numbers Every C*nt Should Love Every C*nt, which is troublingly addictive, or the second act opener Time is Time, and more malicious Are You Gonny Take That? working to further distort the notorious illusions of Glasgae, after dark.

But thankfully, Maxwell’s adaptation refutes the final line of irreparable depravity – maintaining the callous truths of those we hold close, and the actions they take, without resorting to trivialised shock. The grim activities and macabre choices Maxwell’s adaptation takes to remain in a tasteful light, and under Bissett’s visceral direction places emotional integrity and storytelling at the forefront. Taking full advantage is Dylan Wood, who is light on solo musical numbers, save for his Act 2 showstopper, but channels an immense emotional maturity as the character grows – perhaps more so than any of his siblings.

A family unit, the bitterness but underlying resilience of Wood, Amy Conachan, Robert Florence and Reuben Joseph is paced well throughout – each offered a sense of sympathy and resentment for another. Each comprises a significant aspect of the production – almost generational breaks, Florence striking a much more significant note with the older men in the audience, the men who suffer at the hands of forced expressive repression, when they’re desperate to see their Mammy one last time. Together with Joseph, Florence and he shares a significant share of coming to terms with their failures and griefs, while Conachan turns in a spectacularly energetic journey as she comes to push away from those looking to keep her down – and delivers one hell of a belter with Ram It!

Life’s shite – and the journey isn’t much better. But the people we encounter, the choices we make, and the shows we see along the way pepper the road with an appreciation and a thirst to keep going. The National Theatre Scotland’s newest addendum to the musical theatre landscape arrives with pint in hand, ready for piss up, and harkens back to the roots of the genre – maintaining the energy and lustre one expects from a schmaltzy musical romp but enough of a steady tongue to remain new.

Weather the storm. It’s a phrase that ripples through Orphans the Musical, and one which doesn’t find as distinctive a place until audiences place the idiom within their experiences. It all combines into a cacophony of imperative poignancy, which places familial value at its beating breast, and a foul mouth on its talented, tear-stained lips – a conquest of Scottish Musical theatre.

Orphans runs at the King’s Theatre until April 16th. Tickets for which can be obtained here.


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