Friday, June 22, 2012

'Born in the Gardens' at Fairfield Halls, 21st June 2012

To say that interesting theatre only happens above Islington pubs or in West End basements is a mistake.  There are lots of interesting things going on all over London, and getting out Zone 1 once in a while is nice for a change of pace.  But even with this thought running through my head, it was with a dark sense of foreboding that I stepped off the train at West Croydon Overground station.  I am familiar with Croydon, and have formed the opinion that it is a featureless, depressing wasteland of the soul.  As I staggered down the wind tunnel of Wellesley Road, corporate concrete monoliths towering over me I began to feel that sucking sense of hope being drained out of your soul that seems to accompany a visit to Croydon.  I reached the theatre – Fairfield Halls, a monument to some deranged sense of 1960s functionality, a place that should have been torn down long ago and the earth salted.  ‘This play had better be damn good’, I thought.

‘Born in the Gardens’ is a Peter Nichols play that premiered and is set in 1979, it’s about a family coming together for the funeral of their father.  The mother, Maud (Katherine Senior) lives in a decaying mock-Tudor house with one of her sons, the somewhat isolated Maurice (Edward Ferrow).  The two other siblings soon arrive for the party, Maurice’s twin sister Queenie (Rachel Howells) and their younger brother, Hedley (Jonathan Parish) a Labour MP.  The plot revolves around Queenie and Hedley trying to get their mother to move into a duplex in London, and to get rid of the somewhat decrepit house she lives in Bristol.

First impressions of the play were not good.  We open with someone dressed as bumbling old lady, it feels immediately sort of Little Britainy – the humour seems to be largely based around comically misunderstood words (‘michael wave’ for microwave for example) and on talking back to the television.  It seems almost impossibly old-fashioned.  The staging is overly naturalistic, the character’s dialogue is generally aimed at the audience rather than at each other and even though there are apparently jokes being told, no-one in the audience seems to be laughing.  A slow tingle of horror begins to grow in my chest, have I come all the way to Croydon to see a bad play?  The programme informs me that this production has arrived here by way of the Budleigh Salterton Public Hall, suddenly all signs are pointing to disaster.

But I bear with it, and try and work out what they’re getting at.  1979 seems like a pretty depressing year in British history, beginning with the winter of discontent, with rubbish piled up in the streets and parks, and corpses going unburied, and by the time the events of the play are taking place, the Labour government has lost a vote of no confidence and a new Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher has taken power.  It is a time of change, although not necessarily a positive and happy sort of change.  The events of the play seem to hint at the social misery going on in the wider world around the characters.  Ledley, the Labour MP is treated as a figure of fun for his socially crusading philosophy.  I suppose in 1979 views like this would be considered ripe for mockery.  The daughter, Queenie, is living in a beach house inMalibu writing acidic but hollow magazine articles, and Maurice seems to be locked into a spiral of masturbatory isolation and talking to his beloved cat.

It slowly becomes apparent that while on the surface the play is a harmless, toothless, neutered kind of comedy, deep within its chest beats a misanthropic and twisted heart.  The characters are stock comedy archetypes, but these are archetypes just one step before their neuroses collapse in on themselves. 

It is interesting to see how they play the ‘hilarious’ dottiness of the mother Maud.  She is constantly seeing ‘mites’ on everything.  This is frequently a punchline and it seems like they want the audience to think ‘this old woman is so whacky!’  Characters spend time angrily debating their existence, but it is clear to us at least that they do not exist.  Maud finds them everywhere, in her shoes, in her bag, in the car, on the serviettes – they’re even eating her hair.  Her children don’t seem to find this behaviour particularly disturbing, they see her delusion as a kind of leverage to get her to move out of the house and into a modern duplex.  When we in the audience think about it for a moment, the humour begins to recede.  It’s pretty apparent that no matter where Maud ends up, either in the Victorian house or the duplex she will continue to see ‘the mites’ on everything.  How long before she sees them under her skin?  And then what?

This is not some wilfully dark interpretation of mine: the play demonstrates a specific awareness of delusional clinical psychology.  It takes pains to use the expression folie a deux, and then to explain what exactly this entails.  It actively wants us to consider this comedic character’s quite disturbing mental illness taken to its logical end.

This sense of things going very wrong just waiting in the wings hangs over the whole play.  While the events on stage are fairly comedic and inconsequential, there are pitch-black hints of the most terrifying activity in the character’s pasts and future.  For example, throughout the first act of the play, the dead father, Victor’s coffin lies in the front room.  Queenie, his ‘favourite’ says that she came over to see his ashes scattered for a sense of closure.  "Closure for what he did to me that night…".  

Wait… what?! 

For a moment the spectre of childhood sexual abuse hangs over the play, and then it vanishes, uncommented on by both audience and cast alike.  You find yourself wondering if you’d imagined it. 

Another instance of this fleeting sense of underlying horror comes during a vaguely incestuous scene between the two twins.  In this instance I can’t tell whether it was something in the script, or maybe a bit of miscommunication between the actors and the audience, but a murmur of shock travelled through the audience.  Later on there is frequently disturbing sexual activity alluded to, and it seems to throw contrast to the light and harmless ‘humorous ‘dialogue on stage.  Once you’ve glimpsed this darkness it seems to pervade even the lightest of scenes.  The ruined late 70s furniture and technology seems to take on a sinister air, and the constantly mentioned decay of the house seems to mirror their mental states.  The fact that the ‘jokes’ the characters make are falling flat does not seem embarrassing to anyone – only the bitterest and most cynical can laugh at these poor bastards.

I find it interesting that this play was in a contemporary setting when it was premiered.  It works so well as a period piece that it is difficult to imagine it ever being regarded as modern, even in 1979.  Nostalgia for the past is a pretty easy crutch for a play to rely on, and it is to the credit of the production company Creative Cow that they do not try to portray 1979 as a fond memory.  It is explicitly a dank, depressing and tasteless era.  Characters are casually racist in a reflexive and unexamined way, their listing of the nationalities of the business owners in their town sounds disturbingly like the kind of bile you’d hear foaming from the mouth of a BNP member.  It all seems suffocating.  Even the drinks seem warped and off-putting, characters frequently enjoy an absolutely vile sounding “bullshot” cocktail which apparently consists of beef bouillon and vodka (I had assumed that something so revolting must be made up, but no, apparently it’s a real cocktail).

I hesitate to say I enjoyed this play.  It was unfunny, at times crushingly dull and the more you think about it, the more depressing the events of the play become.  But maybe this is all the point?  All of the performances are great, and the production values are extremely professional, but they seem in service of a sinister agenda, one designed to instil a sense of creeping horror and unease in the audience.  It is a profoundly nihilistic experience: the final scene of the play is much the same as the first, suggesting an unending ouroboros of misery, pain and death.  God only knows what the audience in Budleigh Salterton made of it.

As I stumbled out into the Croydon night it seemed like the crushingly oppressive world of the play was following me.  I picked my way past pools of steaming vomit outside a chain nightclub, past people groaning (in pleasure or pain?) on benches on the high street, past strange inhuman howls coming from a back alley and eventually onto the train home.  As it pulled out of the station the words of Johnny Rotten popped into my head: "There is no future in England's dreaming."  

I have once again vowed never to return to Croydon.  This time I’m determined to keep my word.

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