Crime or reason in Orphans

This article is from 2009.

Crime or reason in 'Orphans'

Playwright Dennis Kelly and director Roxana Silbert, talk to Steve Cramer about a more thoughtful approach to the urban crime thriller

In Sydney, it’s not uncommon to hear of people being beaten up for their wallet. Even in its new zero tolerance incarnation, New York still sees its share of muggings, while Johannesburg continues to see a good deal of robbery with violence. What makes the UK so unique is the amount of violence visited upon people unmotivated by financial gain.

For all that, it’s not as dangerous out there as our news and endless diet of ‘real’ crime television might indicate. In the Victorian Britain much trumpeted by politicians a few years back, life was much more dangerous. As dramatist Dennis Kelly points out, a few simple advances have made a good deal of difference. ‘I remember reading that before street lighting was introduced the murder rate was ten times higher. The murder rate has gone down dramatically since, though it’s crept up a little bit over the last 40 years. What has gone up is the amount of reportage – we live in a very reported society. I don’t want to blame it all on the media, though, I think its more complex than that.’

Kelly, whose After the End created a splash at the Fringe a few years back, is these days one of the more celebrated new writers in the UK, with such pieces as Debris and Osama the Hero leaving critics and audiences eagerly awaiting his next piece.

Orphans has been described as an urban thriller, yet the twist in its tail is a bit more sophisticated than might be expected. Often, this very conservative form surprises us with a simple relocation of the familiar markers of plot, and leaves in place the unquestioned certainties of the moral order the genre might have been created to defend. Here, though, the surprises are less to do with simple narrative than the political and social assumptions we make when confronted with such a story.

A young man arrives at the door of his sister’s home covered in blood. His account of a violent incident becomes increasingly ambivalent as the evening progresses, while his relationship with his sister, who has emerged from the care home system with more distinction than her sibling, becomes increasingly significant.

‘I think a fear of crime plays, but it’s a bit of a red herring in our society,’ adds Roxana Silbert, directing her last show for Paines Plough before departing to the RSC, where she’ll be overseeing the New Work programme. ‘Dennis has taken a very familiar format, the psychological thriller, but politically it’s coming from a very different place – it takes a mainstream form, but asks non-mainstream questions. The text creates a random attack in an urban environment that plays into all our fears of knife crime and kids being rampant on the street. But actually it examines that idea and challenges it. It examines what it means to be a family in that environment. It starts with a random crime, but becomes an examination of family.’

If all this sounds like simple moralism, you might be surprised. Kelly’s work seldom finds easy right or left solutions, as Silbert goes on to explain. ‘It also makes the point that it’s easy to be liberal when not under pressure, but as soon as you need to make a choice about where your loyalties lie, your liberalism either becomes very wet and ineffective or it quickly exposes something much closer to that nastiness and denial that a feeling of being abandoned by society brings. There’s also a metaphor about inclusion on that level.
You’ve got Sarkozy talking about banning burqas in France. There’s a desire to appear to be including everyone, but actually there are problems underneath.’

This reference to racial issues leads one to ask about the incident described in the play, which involves Asian youths. ‘It’s not completely about race,’ Kelly says. ‘You can walk down the street and see a bunch of white teenagers and be afraid. We’re scared of our youth here. There are these gangs out there and they dress in certain clothes. Some of them are white, some of them are black, some of them are Asian. It doesn’t really matter about their colour, they’re seen as threatening.’

Kelly speaks of his own experience of urban violence, but cautions us about buying into the siege mentality that such incidents sometimes create. ‘When something does happen to you, people do care. I got attacked by some lunatic, and fell over and got my head cracked open. Now what amazed me was the care shown for me, the kindness from passers by, and the nurses in the hospital. Apart from the nutter, all those hundreds of other people rallied around and put all of their resources into saving my life, and making sure I got better. Now what does that tell you?’

Orphans, Traverse Theatre, 228 1404, 9–30 Aug (not 10, 17, 24), times vary, £16–£18 (£11–£12). Preview 8 Aug, £11 (£5).


A sneak preview of this Fringe show from the Traverse Theatre Company & Birmingham Repertory Theatre Company in association with Paines Plough.


  • 4 stars

In this psychological thriller, Danny and Helen's quiet life explodes when her brother turns up. Covered in blood.Written by Dennis Kelly and directed by Roxana Silbert, 'Orphans' reunites the award-winning team behind 'After the End' (Fringe 2005).

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