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Testmatch, Orange Tree Theatre review - Raj rage, old and new, flares in cricket dramedy | reviews, news & interviews

Testmatch, Orange Tree Theatre review - Raj rage, old and new, flares in cricket dramedy

Testmatch, Orange Tree Theatre review - Raj rage, old and new, flares in cricket dramedy

Winning performances cannot overcome a scattergun approach to a ragbag of issues

The company of Testmatch - "It's just not cricket!"Helen Murray

Cricket has always been a lens through which to examine the legacy of the British Empire. In the 1930s, the infamous Bodyline series saw the new nation, Australia, stand up to its big brother’s bullying tactics. In the 1970s, the all-conquering West Indies team gave pride to the Windrush generation when they vanquished an England whose captain had promised to make them grovel.

In the 2010s, the brash and bold Indian Premier League saw the world’s largest democracy flex its financial muscle as global power shifted eastwards. 

Kate Attwell’s 2019 play, Testmatch (receiving its UK premiere) has much to say about Empire but also about an even longer standing power structure - patriarchy. Whether that additional ambition results in a catch on the boundary when essaying a four all along the ground was a better option, will depend on whether you prefer an innings full of six-hitting pyrotechnics or one of safer accumulation. Cricket, like theatre, admits both approaches.

We open in a situation familiar to anyone who has played or watched the game: a rain delay. Three England players and three India players jib and jibe about their teams’ chances in the vital World Cup match, but soon the bickering turns to matters beyond the drizzle of Lord’s.

A key theme soon emerges - how history cannot be reduced to a single narrative but is more a collection of competing interpretations with some promoted by powerful bodies and others conveniently buried, and so the prevailing hegemony goes unchallenged. The Indians, with that emerging confidence born of industrial success, see the Raj as oppressive and exploitative and that such attitudes live on today; the English cling to their story of benign paternalism, the old tropes of building the railways and the ending of suttee never far from their thoughts.

Plenty to go at there, enough to deal with the most persistent of St John’s Wood downpours, but a we’re given plenty more to field in the outer. Racism, sexism, corruption and LGBT+ issues are stirred into an already bubbling tandoor and the play buckles under the weight of so many hot button topics. 

Cricket fans will recognise allusions to the anger issues of the young Ben Stokes, the current England Men’s Test captain and now empathy machine; they’ll see a reference to Ellyse Perry, the Australian double-international and they’ll catch more than a whiff of the Hansie Cronje spot-fixing scandal, now 24 years in the past. 

Whether those names are familiar or not, the speed with which these issues arise and their inevitably swift and shallow examination will feel unsatisfactory, too much packed into too small a dramatic space. It also reduces the players to mouthpieces rather than fully rounded individuals, more vehicles to introduce points of view than living, breathing characters.

The ensemble cast win us over by investing each of the players with enough charm and vulnerability for us to understand why they behave as they do. Aiyana Bartlett, Aarushi Ganju, Mia Turner, Tanya Katyal, Bea Svistunenko and Haylie Jones (both pictured above) convince as competitive adversaries who, like so many sports stars, have not yet acquired the emotional intelligence to deal with the pressures their athletic prowess has delivered. They are, it has to be said, very loud in The Orange Tree’s intimate space, which diminishes rather than emphasises the tension, especially as we can’t always see their faces, the play set in the round.

Director, Diane Page, is less sure-footed after the interval, when, with six costume changes (I was sad to see Cat Fuller’s beautifully observed detail of grass-staining on the cricket shoes go) we’re taken back to 1770. The famous (or should that be infamous?) East India Company controls Bengal and is extracting as much as they can from its resources for the benefit of the British Raj, the First War of Independence / Indian Mutiny still 87 years in the future. 

The comedy is too broad, the English administrators caricatures of Gilbert and Sullivan’s satirical creations, sometimes verging on pantomime and the Indians are given too much clunky exposition to deliver. There’s also too much time spent on one of cricket’s many apocryphal stories (that overarm bowling was invented by women hampered by their crinolines) and not enough on the famine that rages through the land and the extraordinary arrangements through which the Company brokered its rule.

For all its flaws, the play generates its fair share of laughs and it does provoke much-needed thoughts about why the soi-disant culture wars of today matter, control of the past being the key to control of the present. But it sends too many balls into the air which are subsequently dropped to be in contention to lift the trophy when the rain abates. 

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