Nichols has said, in no uncertain terms, that the theatre community has
been shunning him for decades. After seeing Creative Cow’s gem at the
Rosemary Branch, I can’t for the life of me work out why. It’s tragic,
it’s hilarious, it’s even vicious and asphyxiating somehow, and, as the
best thing on the fringe this year heads out on a national tour, I’d
like to give the playwright a good shake and tell him it’s exactly what
this industry needs.
Set in a mock Tudor living room in Bristol, 1979, his heroine Maud is a potty, recently widowed housewife, who knows where the drinks cabinet is. With her husband barely dead (in fact his coffin sits in the background during the first act), she surrounds herself with her family, made up of one son who is an obsessive hermit who talks to cats, one son who is an MP, and a daughter with incestuous urges who lives in Malibu. It doesn’t take long for the gloves to come off.
Nichols’ vituperative text is full of the era’s bigotry - including casual racism about famine and paranoia about the welfare state - and it’s fiendishly funny. But none of it would work without the cast’s outstanding performances. With Edward Ferrow as mummy’s boy Maurice, Rachel Howells as the neurotic Queenie, Jonathan Parish as snotty politician Hedley and Katherine Senior as the barmy Maud, they form the perfect dysfunctional family, if, in fact, such a thing can exist. Regardless, it’s “super-duper” as Maude would put it, and it belongs on a big stage in the West End.
Many theatre companies, when reviving a play that was first staged more than thirty years ago, would seek to update the piece with elaborate re-staging or contextual changes. Creative Cow’s triumph with Peter Nichols’ 1979 comedy is, in large part, down to the fact that they have remained faithful to the era and have staged the production accordingly is extremely shrewd and reinforces the main themes of the piece quite beautifully.
Maud lives in Tudor Manor with her grown up son Mo where the pair share a rather eccentric but terribly content existence. Maud spends her days in conversation with the characters on her black and white television whilst Mo mixes a mind boggling assortment of cocktails, listens to jazz records and plays the drums. The death of Maud’s husband results in her other two grown up children coming home to mourn their father and to try and convince Maud and Mo to leave Tudor Manor.
The character of Maud is a brilliant comic creation and Katherine Senior provided the stand out performance of the night playing this sweet old lady. It’s Maud’s Malapropisms that lead to the biggest laughs (Michael Wave for microwave being my favourite) but Senior also manages to add a beautiful sympathetic depth to the role and ensures that the audience feel the same way about Maud as they might about their batty old aunty or nan.
Edward Ferrow as Mo is superb in reflecting the genuin.
That’s not to say that Born in the Gardens is a strictly nostalgic exercise and indeed Nichols’ play resonates with a 2012 audience with the political and economic parallels between then and now adding an extra dimension. The decision to produce this play now
e love that the son has for his mother and the discomfort that results from the fact that his idyllic life in Bristol might have to change. Jonathan Parrish plays the conflicted eldest son, Hedley, with a heavy sense of responsibility and false arrogance. Rachel Howells’ Queenie is a wonderfully neurotic creation, freshly returned from California and a string of broken relationships.
The contrast between Maud & Mo and Hedley & Queenie forms one of the strongest themes of the play with the former pair being seen as odd and eccentric for wanting to stay in the family home and continue in their well established ways. Hedley and Queenie could both be described as successful people but with two solo scenes on the telephone we see that neither is happy and that their lives are far from what they would wish them to be.
It’s important to note that there is some racial language in the play that could be seen as offensive if this had been a script written today to reflect the 1970’s. However, Nichols wrote this piece at the end of the 70’s when such language was prevalent and it is, therefore, a brave and correct decision of the Creative Cow company to keep the language as written by the playwright.
Born in the Gardens is a wonderful production by a company that just keeps improving with every new play that they tackle. Small touring troupes like Creative Cow form a backbone to the British theatre industry and should be supported at every opportunity. I for one cannot wait to see what they do next. It is rumoured that a revival of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals is on the cards for this hardworking company and after seeing Katherine Senior deliver the Malapropisms in this play with such aplomb I cannot wait to see her step into the role of Mrs M herself.
The production is touring throughout England until the end of June and a full listing of upcoming dates is available at www.creativecow.co.uk
Creative Cow’s latest touring production Born in the Gardens is a darkly comic exploration of one family’s experiences following the death of the husband and father.
“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 Gardenswas, 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.
Maia JenkinsThe Latest
Who feels more caged in Bristol; the oldest gorilla in captivity, the old lady living with dementia, or the bookworm son she lives with? Coupled with sibling sex, class, sexual frustration, child abuse, family pride and above all the eccentricities of the family – this was a complex piece of theatre thematically… oh and it was a comedy too! And it was hilarious in places, the writer Peter Nichols is the overlooked master of acerbic, cutting and politically incorrect language. Unimaginable by modern liberal ears, but the language is hung on characters we all recognise in our own families. A competent cast and well worth a look.
Whats on Stage
A late 70’s living room is the set for Creative Cow’s latest production, Born in the Gardens, although the outdated furnishings might make the audience think it is much earlier. Across the front of the stage are two sets of cage-like bars and, sitting quietly in an armchair watching the black and white television set, (and occasionally taking time out to wave at the incoming patrons) is a gorilla. Yes, a gorilla that, as the house lights dim, simply gets up and exits stage left.
Taking his place, centre stage, are Maurice Edward Ferrow - the youngest of three children and the only one not to have flown the nest, his Mother, Maud Katherine Senior – a woman who is the epitome of the great British eccentric, and Maud’s very recently deceased husband – who lies in an open coffin, overflowing with flowers, at the back of the stage.
Maud’s favourite pastime is talking to the TV, particularly her “friends” who keep reappearing in almost every advert break. She cannot hear them, as the TV is faulty, but she tells them the important news of the day and informs her son which person it is that is “listening”. Sometimes it’s the “lady with the headache” other times the “lady from the bank” but it’s never the people who read the news, as she is not at all fond of them.
Maurice likes to play his old 78s of New Orleans jazz bands, which he accompanies on his drum kit, and both seem to have a penchant for trying out strange and exotic cocktails on a frighteningly regular basis. Their life is simple, due to a phobia of just about every gadget known to modern man and even the “michael-wave” has the recoiling in terror.
As father’s funeral is the next day, Maud’s other two children arrive at the mock-Tudor family home. HedleyJonathan Parish is a back-bench MP for the Labour Party and Queenie Rachel Howells, Maurice’s twin sister, is a Los Angeles based writer.
In no time at all the petty jealousies and hidden agendas, which somehow always seem to surface at family get-togethers, begin to become apparent. Hedley has decided that his Mother should sell the 14 room mansion and move into somewhere more suitable for “a woman in her condition”. Queenie has decided that, as she has never successfully broken the bond with her twin, she will take Maurice back to America with her.
The only problem is that nobody has asked Maud and Maurice what they would like to do and, as they seem perfectly happy together, maybe those that see fit to be meddling in their lives and futures would be better placed sorting out their own deceitful, troubled and messy lives.
From the very unorthodox beginning the tone is set for a wonderfully amusing play that celebrates eccentricity, examines family life, questions progress and, at the end of the performance, with the bars now back in place across the front of the stage, asks the simple question – If the bars are between us, which of us is trapped inside the cage?