Born in the Gardens
“Chasing after happiness is like chasing after a sunny day,” sighs Maurice at one point. “If it happens it happens.” The same can be said for that elusive thing in the theatre – total affinity with one’s audience. Creative Cow’s production of Born in the Gardens was, in this respect, quite patchy. There was some wonderfully funny dialogue, aided by the soft-lilt of Maud (Katherine Senior) and Maurice’s (Edward Ferrow) West Country accents. Their constant referral to the new microwave as a “Michael Waves”, for example, drew many appreciative giggles from the audience.
The script showed its age, however, in the racism and small-mindedness of Queenie and Maud. Although prejudice is by no means extinct in modern day Britain, the jokes felt, at times, a little close to the bone. Judging by the sharp intakes of breath from other audience members, it was clear I was not the only one who felt that way. Yes, theatre has a responsibility to interrogate and explore contentious issues, but in a play that so delightfully straddles the divide between light-hearted comedy and poignant family drama, these utterances felt ill-timed and left a sour taste in the mouth.
However, it would be hard to fault any of the performances, with each actor completely inhabiting their characters and perfectly capturing the frissons and fractures of a family in turmoil. Katherine Senior’s Maud was a triumph of physical comedy, shuffling about the stage and wobbling into chairs, yet never abandoning the inherent humanity and steely desperation of a mother trying to hold her family together. Jonathon Parish played oldest son and Labour MP Hedley to suitably overwrought yet sycophantic perfection, provoked and perturbed by his glamorous younger sister Queenie (Rachel Howells)
The play has a weighty mood of the uncanny about it: of lives left decaying into insanity. Its setting in a dilapidated ‘mock-Tudor’ drawing room, furnished with 1970s accoutrements and filled with strains of Dixieland jazz created an enjoyably disorientating mood; we were left uncertain where, when and indeed what we were witnessing. This disorientation complemented the undercurrent of madness: Maud chattering away to her “friends” on the television set, Maurice’s conversations with his cat, and the twins sharing some conspicuously non-familial kisses. On a more sinister note, the presence of their dead father hung about the place like a bad smell, both literally – throughout the first act his coffin sat upstage – and figuratively, as the children recalled his various abuses and immoral business decisions.
The promise of deliverance from this bizarre world – and from the stagnant shadows of the past – remains at the centre of the play: Queenie totters back to California, Hedley to his wife and children in Primrose Hill, leaving their brother and mother behind. As they pull the doors of the cage across the stage at the end, a question hangs in the air: should we aspire to a better life than the one we’re born into, or should we enshrine ourselves in the platitudes, practices and pains of the life we’ve come to accept?
Overall, a thought-provoking piece of theatre that is well worth a look.
Creative Cow’s Born in the Gardens will run until this Saturday at Fairfield Halls, Ashcroft Theatre, Park Lane, Croydon, Surrey, CR9 1DG. Tickets available online here.