Born In The Gardens – October 2008

6/10

By Peter Nichols

Directed by Stephen Unwin

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Thursday 9th October 2008

The first half of this play seemed to be by Orton out of Beckett. The set was a large room in a mock Tudor mansion, with a billiards light in the centre of the ceiling, a drum kit centre back, a coffin to the left of that, complete with dead body and floral tributes, a suit of armour back right, and a chair front right facing an old TV on a small table, which had its back to us. There were other chairs and a sideboard, plus a bookcase and standard lamp, etc. The coffin was removed for the second half, which gave them a lot more room. The back wall was dark wood, presumably oak, and panelled.

The father of the family has died, and the mother, Maud, and her younger son Maurice are waiting for the rest of the family to turn up for the funeral. It’s a small group. Hedley, the elder son, left home many years ago and made a career for himself as a politician. He’s now a back-bench MP with the Labour party, and still trying to make a name for himself. He has a wife, who from the sound of things is almost as crazy as his mother, two kids whom we don’t see, and a mistress, though we don’t find out about her until the second half.

Queenie, the sister, is also Maurice’s twin. She also left home many years ago to live in America, where she became a journalist. She’s incorporated the trip back for the funeral into a three week assignment travelling through Europe to report on the situation there. This is the late 1970s, and most of Europe is going through political and economic changes (is this the only drama we’re going to get now? Economic doom and gloom? God help us!). She phones her chap back in LA, just before the interval, only to find he’s not being as faithful as he thought.

Maurice has stayed at home with his parents all this while, and has developed some strange habits. He talks to his mother by reporting what the cat says, thus allowing him to be nice to her himself, but seriously catty as the cat. He plays jazz records (still vinyl in those days), and accompanies them on his drum kit. He also deals in second hand books of a pornographic nature, judging by the short extract Queenie read from one of them. I noticed that Hedley was so horrified when he read it that he completely forgot to hand it back and shut it in his briefcase instead. Maurice also spends most of his time winding his mother up. She’s a batty old dear, what with preferring to watch the TV with the sound off so she can talk to the people she sees on the screen. She believes the sound is broken, but we learn that it’s actually fine; it’s just Maurice who’s kept it turned down, presumably so that he can play his drums.

Maud is very much the heart and soul of this piece. Played superbly well by Stephanie Cole, she comes across as old, gullible, kind-hearted, and stuck in her ways. Despite Hedley’s best efforts, he can’t get her to move out of the big mansion into a small condominium in London, so that they can sell the property for developers to do what developers do. She’s adamant that she wants to stay where she is so she can go to the local hypermarket and buy lots of things really cheaply. Like tampons. She keeps lots of packets of soup in the freezer that Hedley bought her, so he wouldn’t feel she didn’t appreciate his gift. She keeps using the old gas boiler for heating the water, even though it might blow up any minute (we hear several loud bangs to reinforce this point). I don’t know what she’s meant to represent in terms of the author’s experience of Bristol folk, but she’s enough like so many people’s older female relatives to stay just this side of unbelievable (but only just).

There’s also an incestuous relationship between the twins, which accounts for Queenie wanting her brother to come and stay with her in the States, and we learn about their father’s sexual abuse of Queenie which Maurice walked in on and which caused her to leave home as soon as she could all those years ago. All in all, it’s not a happy family, but at least Maud and Maurice are content with their lot. The play finishes with Maud chatting happily away to the silent TV people, while Maurice plays his drums to an accompanying song.

While I enjoyed this performance, I find this type of play doesn’t get me as involved as more straightforward storytelling. The surreal nature of the piece distances me from the characters, and although I found it very funny in places, there was little to engage me emotionally or mentally. And as I don’t know Bristol at all well, I didn’t get much from those aspects either. Still, the performances were excellent, and the humour was good throughout, especially the confusion between duplex, Durex, condominium and condom. I’d still choose to spend an afternoon watching a play like this over a lot of other options.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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