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Tom Fool at the Orange Tree Theatre | Review

There’s a place for silence in a play, and times when a character says it best when they don’t say anything. But when I find myself sat in the audience singing the alphabet in my head four times over before someone says anything at all in a scene, that’s rather excessive. As Romeo sings in & Juliet, “What are you waiting for?” I certainly didn’t enjoy watching a prolonged clear up take place after an explosion of anger, which is the sole emotion Otto (Michael Shaeffer) can ever express. The punchline that eventually followed may have made some people burst into peals of laughter but left me distinctly unimpressed, and it took some resistance on my part not to call out, “Is that it?” in response. The interval that followed shortly thereafter seemed unnecessary – it was as if we had already had one.

 Anna Francolini and Jonah Rzeskiewicz in TOM FOOL - Credit The Other Richard.
Anna Francolini and Jonah Rzeskiewicz in TOM FOOL – Credit The Other Richard.

First published in 1978, the play makes a point about the world of work in a capitalist system, without making suggestions as to how it could be improved. For Otto, life is a pain in the proverbial, and then you die. Both he and his stoic wife Martha (Anna Francolini) attempt to persuade their son Ludwig (Jonah Rzeskiewicz) to do something with his life, though his own preference to become an apprentice bricklayer is pooh-poohed. His mother would prefer him to work in dentistry, but as is the case with almost everyone, it is difficult to get a job in any given sector without experience, and at the same time impossible to gain experience without a job.

Such is Otto’s frustration, however, that in some respects it’s a wonder he doesn’t kick Ludwig out of the house. The power that comes with the head of the household isn’t something he wants to give up easily, whether he realises it or not. He also has a knack for majoring on the minor, ruminating for some time on the very important matter of how to retrieve a pen that wasn’t given back to him: again, the humour was lost on me. Apparently approaching the person who took it and asking them, “Could I have my pen back please?” would be far too handy and logical.

Martha encounters challenges after she decides she is no longer safe in the family home, something still relatable today for those who escape from an unhealthy relationship. As for Otto, let’s just say talking to oneself to the extent that he does, going as far as to argue with himself, is strongly indicative that not all is well with his mental health. He doesn’t say so explicitly, but there’s an acceptance of the Marxist theory of alienation. What Otto does at work, and how, is determined by others, to the point where he does not think for himself. He is in the workplace to be dictated to, as though a machine, for his employer to obtain maximum economic benefit from him. A pity, then, that more time was devoted to Otto indignantly adding up the items in a restaurant bill.

It is, frankly, difficult to care much about characters who are all thoroughly dislikeable and end up learning how to be self-sufficient in any event. Some scenes are given titles, displayed on screens in the theatre, such as ‘World Champion’ and ‘The Reckoning’, which all felt rather random. The long silences may have been more bearable if the dramatic tension were more palpable. The actors do a good job with what they are given. But the ending is too abrupt, and the pacing is all over the place.

This is a convincing portrayal of human life, with all its complications and idiosyncrasies, I’ll give it that much.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

I’d like to climb out of my skin, if I could.
Every night Martha listens to the minute details of husband Otto’s day at the factory. He’s a man with big dreams, stuck in a job where he feels like a cog in the machine. Their teenage son Ludwig just wishes he had a job, or at least his own space, far far away from his parents.

They are each frustrated with a life they can’t seem to escape.

When money goes missing, a family on the brink hurtles over the edge, and Martha has to decide whether she will stay to pick up the pieces.

A dark and unnervingly funny play about how capitalism creeps into the minutiae of one family’s life, just at the moment women started to change the rules of the game.

Diyan Zora directs Anna Francolini (Martha), Jonah Rzeskiewicz (Ludwig) and Michael Shaeffer (Otto).

Orange Tree Theatre Listings
1 Clarence Street, Richmond, TW9 2SA
12 March – 16 April 2022

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1 thought on “Tom Fool at the Orange Tree Theatre | Review”

  1. The characters were very broadly drawn so I felt no sympathy for any of them when it came to their crisis. Unsubtle and patronising.

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