Review: Orphans (Coal Mine Theatre)

Orphans is a compelling but mixed offering on the Toronto stage

Orphans, currently being presented by Coal Mine Theatre, is an intense evening of family drama. Dennis Kelly’s gripping play explores violence, morality, honesty, and especially family loyalty. It is often difficult to watch, but I found I couldn’t turn away.

The play unfolds in the home of Danny and Helen, a young couple who have sent their young son to his grandmother’s so they can have a nice dinner together alone. Their romantic evening is interrupted when Helen’s brother, Liam, shows up covered in blood, claiming he has been helping an unconscious stranger he found bleeding in the street.

As the play progresses, we, along with Danny and Helen, begin to suspect that Liam is not telling the complete truth. But what to do about the situation becomes less clear. Helen wants to protect Liam at all costs; Danny wants to protect his relationship with Helen.

Complicating the matter are undercurrents of racial prejudice and anti-immigrant sentiment that run throughout the play. Orphans is set in an urban centre in the United Kingdom. Danny has been recently beaten up by a group of “Arab” youths from the nearby council estate, and Liam claims the stranger was one of them. To me, though, the issue of race and religion was not central to this particular story. Helen clearly sees the world as “us vs. them”–and, in this context, the “them” is Muslim immigrants.  But it really could be anyone different, anyone who you don’t know.

The show takes place in a very small space, about 100 seats. Half of the audience is on each side, facing each other across Danny and Helen’s living room.  The childish drawings on the walls, a table full of Legos, and a basket of laundry bring us right into their lives.  The intimacy adds to the intensity.

The performances of the three actors were all excellent.  Tim Dowler-Coltman as Liam was heartbreaking as he swung between terrifying anger and wounded confusion. He had the look of a soccer thug with the accent to match. Diana Bentley’s Helen was manipulative and calculating, while David Patrick Fleming’s bewildered Danny was almost painful to watch.  He’s just a mild- mannered man who loves his wife and kid, and he is caught up in a situation that challenges his perceptions of himself and his definitions of right and wrong.

Everything in Orphans feels slippery. Allegiances shift, characters contradict themselves, and we don’t find out what really happened between Liam and the stranger until the very end. We’re never completely sure who is good and who is evil. Whose side are we supposed to take? It’s unsettling and uncomfortable.

Though I found the play compelling,  I was conflicted on my subway ride home.  I loved the acting and the dialogue, and I was never bored.  But in the end I thought Orphans was implausible and a bit too much. Without giving too much away, I just couldn’t believe the choices Danny makes. Maybe Kelly is trying to say that all of us can be driven to extreme measures, especially to preserve our family–but there’s a fine line between moral ambiguity and over-the-top melodrama, and I think Orphans takes you awfully close to it.


  • Orphans is playing until April 30, 2017 at The Coal Mine Theatre (1454 Danforth Avenue)
  • Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 7:30pm with Sunday matinees at 2pm.  The show is 95 minutes with no intermission.
  • Tickets are $35 and can be purchased online

Photo of Diane Bentley and Tim Dowler-Coltman by Shaun Benson