Orphans (4 stars)

This article is from 2009


Rivetting exploration of urban fear

Dennis Kelly’s Orphans opens with a tableau that might have been culled from a conventional TV thriller. An ordinary couple, Helen and Danny, about to eat dinner, sit staring up at a man drenched in blood standing in their doorway. The man, it turns out, is not a stranger, but Helen’s brother, Danny, who claims to have intervened in a violent incident on the estate.

As Liam’s dubious story unfolds, and he invokes Asians and ‘dirty old men with beards’ Helen’s attempts to protect him become ever more desperate. There’s a tangible reason for her concern: Liam is her only surviving relative (the pair grew up in care) and, well, family is everything, right?

The tension is sustained throughout by Kelly’s deceptively realistic dialogue, the characters’ stumbling, increasingly frantic inarticulacy creating a strange, staccato poetry. Occasional relief comes from moments of ink-black comedy, as when a particularly overwrought scene is interrupted by a character’s incongruously cheerful mobile ring-tone going off.

Kelly’s work raises pertinent questions about the nature of fear, particularly the threat of the vague, undefined ‘other’, and the desperate need to feel safe within the family unit. Garance Marneur’s set reflects this dichotomy – decorated with natty feature wallpaper and proudly festooned with family photos, the structures are bridged by railings and barbed wire.

The play never feels schematic, though. The action is rivetting, largely thanks to the intensity of the performances. Claire-Louise Cordwell convincingly sustains Helen’s desperation and anxiety, while Jonathan McGuinness as Danny comes into his own in the latter scenes, quietly, devastatingly evoking the horror of what has just occurred. And Joe Armstrong gives a subtly detailed, ultimately chilling performance in the role of Liam.

Traverse Theatre, 228 1404, until 30 Aug 2009 (not 24), times vary, £16–£18 (£11–£12).


  • 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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