Peter Mullen’s 1998 pitch black comedy film Orphans has been transposed to the stage in musical form thanks to a germ of an idea from director Cora Bissett that has grown to gloriously full bloom in the hands of a veritable dream team of creatives.
The story centres on the four Flynn family siblings as they are faced with the confusion of grief after their mother Rose’s death and ask themselves in song ‘What Happens Now?’ The four start to unravel in their own way with the oldest son Thomas Patrick (Robert Florence) being determined to sit all night in vigil at his mother’s coffin as it sits in church while their sister Sheila (Amy Conachan) escapes in her less than reliable wheelchair to head home alone. Their brothers John (Dylan Wood) and Michael (Reuben Joseph) decide to head to the local pub where Michael gets stabbed, and John seeks revenge.
In the scenes that follow, designer Emily James’ astonishing set is both literally and symbolically pivotal to the show. Her Southside Glasgow sandstone tenements, with their wallie closes and bulgin windaes, spin and morph to an old drinking shop; a Catholic church interior made celestial by Lizzie Powell’s lighting, and the tenement interiors of various social classes.
Song writing duo Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly, whose repertoire runs to 25 songs over the 2 act performance, are completely in tune with the show’s ethos providing a fantastic range of song styles all sung with gusto by the entire cast from the foot stomping ‘Ram It’ to the poignant ‘Ah Want Ma Mammy’ and the outrageously unforgettable (but unprintable!) ensemble piece early in the first act.
The rhythms and realities of Glasgow speech are captured with pin sharp accuracy by Douglas Maxwell who wrote the stage adaptation of this unashamedly working class and unashamedly Scottish piece of musical theatre showing the complexities of family life and its underlying love. It is healthily irreverent with multitudes of sweary words woven through the vibrant music while stonking dance moves, brilliantly choreographed by Vicki Manderson are fantastically performed by the ensemble. This multi layered work exposes the heartbeat switch of male tenderness to violence with the song ‘A Storm is Coming’ and the raw vulnerability of being human in ‘Why Fight It?’ The show is laced throughout with gallus Glasgow attitude and the acute sense of the absurd that informs so much of Scottish humour.
Some cast members stand out in this superb ensemble – Amy Conachan who brings a refreshing new slant to the character of Sheila; Robert Florence with his deadpan comedy skills in portrayal of the earnest Thomas; Louise McCarthy in her variety of larger than life roles across the piece and Harry Ward for his utter authenticity as Tanga.
Peter Mullan’s feature film Orphans has become a cult classic of European cinema. A musical about grief may not sound like a barrel of laughs but Orphans is just that with a few tears added. It thoroughly deserves to claim its place in the canon of vibrant Scottish theatre.
Orphans soundtrack is available to stream and purchase from all major platforms.
Running time 3 hours Age recommend 16 +