The Theatreguide.London Review
A Flower Vase
Arts Theatre Autumn 2013
Who could have imagined that there was an engrossing drama in flower arranging?
I'm serious. Who really thought there was a play in this strikingly undramatic story of uninteresting people?
Constance Spry was a fashionable florist in the 1930s, providing arrangements for shop windows and high society homes. Her originality lay in avoiding overused flowers in favour of ferns, weeds and generally neglected blooms, and her lectures and books encouraged those who couldn't afford her services to pick and arrange their own inexpensive bouquets.
Her private life was complicated. She was never actually married to her husband of many years, and he accepted her aversion to sex by carrying on a lengthy affair with her shop manager, with her knowledge, while she in turn had an affair with a lesbian painter.
Drawing on Sue Shephard's biography of Spry, Anton Burge has chosen to focus on that lesbian affair (even though the same years saw Spry gaining crown patronage by decorating a royal wedding and then losing it almost immediately by doing the same for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, which strikes me as a more interesting story), and the resulting emotion-fraught melodrama plays at its best like a particularly weak episode of Downton Abbey or some other period soap opera – except that we just don't care.
The problems with this play are manifold, and entirely in the script, foremost among them the fact that Spry, as presented, is not a particularly interesting, insightful or sympathetic character, and neither is anyone else.
While her husband and employees worry that her romance is making her neglect her work (and their incomes) and her society friends warn her that the painter is just using her for her contacts and will drop her (as she eventually does) when a more promising patron comes along to be seduced, Spry just wanders through the play in a fog, waking up from time to time only to stick a couple of ferns in a vase or give a lecture to a provincial women's club.
And if the moral of the story, voiced by professional divorcée Syrie (ex-Mrs. Somerset) Maugham, is that everybody uses everybody else and there's no such thing as real friendship, Spry comes across as a fool who deserves all the heartache she gets.
All the efforts of director Alan Strachan and his cast can't bring the play alive, and frankly they don't always seem to be trying all that hard. Certainly Penny Downie has been far better in almost every role she's ever played than she is as Spry, confirming that there just wasn't anything here for her to work with.
That old smoothie Christopher Ravenscroft strolls effortlessly through the role of the husband, and only Carol Royle as Syrie can work up much energy to bring some bitchy fun to her scenes.
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