Review: The Orphanarium of Erthing Worthing

Ben Pope 31 October 2011

The Orphanarium of Erthing Worthing

The Marlowe Society

ADC Lateshow – 11pm – Until Sat 29th October 2011


“That’s how I want to spend my life: watching that”, I heard someone say leaving the auditorium. Internally I found myself agreeing. Because in Cambridge, a land where academic excellence and exhaustion walk hand in hand, where everything requires explanation and acute dissection, The Orphanarium of Erthing Worthing, so fleeting and pointless, as random as the paraphernalia scattered around the stage, proved the perfect respite.

That’s not to say this surreal chunk of comedy was without an underlying message – but if there was one I didn’t want to look for it. Instead, it successfully fulfilled its function as light entertainment, such was the torrent of caricature (slimy Mr Cuddles), slapstick (the side-splittingly camp dance), visual comedy (wine bottles fitted with teats) and puns (“the wind whistled through her hair, and the builders whistled at her tits”). Certainly there were some flaws, largely a fairly so-so plot that felt as if it were tagged on for its own sake and a climax that came and went so fast even the title character missed it (“Oh shit”), but to dwell on this too long is to misunderstand a play which revels in exploring the weird cul-de-sacs of its characters.

Which leads me to the show’s real strength: characterisation. In casting, acting and writing, these unhinged figures are perfectly pitched – Marcus, the seventeen-year-old work experience lackey from Closing Ltd., was suitably uptight but well-meaning; Mr Cuddles (Mark Wartenburg), the Cruella de Vil of businessmen, was perfectly pantomime; Erthing Worthing himself (Will Chappell), the crazed owner still upholding the British Empire, was brilliantly mad; and Little Willy (Andrew Brock), the one-time face of Pears’ soap “dressed as an Edwardian schoolboy”, was a bewildering slice of camp oddity. But the stand-out performances were the kleptomaniac, anorak-wearing Gladys (Jennie King) and her fellow inmate, the failed actress still living her success, Monty (Charlotte Hamblin). Every drop of comedy in both these roles was wrenched out by their respective actresses – each gesticulation, each rambling sentence, each mention of the word ‘tit’ was made genuinely hilarious. It was surely these who made the show.

As you might have guessed from the random collection of characters, the dynamic of the show was decidedly odd. This was evident even in the structure which treated us to a remarkable set piece in the box-dance, snatches of recorded telephone calls made by Mr Worthing and nostalgic digressions from the main orphans – all non-sequiturs but still effortlessly funny. This suits the intentions of the play: not really going anywhere, but entertaining whilst it does that. Immobile but never stagnant. The only time that I really felt let down was when punch-lines were weaker than their neighbours – with such a strong script, the weaknesses naturally show. But on the whole, despite its total pointlessness, The Orphanarium of Erthing Worthing, like Coward’s Hay Fever and Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest before that, was British entertainment for its own sake. And with an essay due in tomorrow, that’s just what I needed.

Ben Pope