FLOWERS OF THE FOREST
by John Van Druten.
Jermyn Street Theatre 16b Jermyn Street SW1Y 6ST To 18 October 2014.
Tue-Sat 7.30pm Mat Sat, Sun 3.30pm.
Runs 2hr 30min One interval.
TICKETS: 020 7287 2875.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 27 September.
Strongly constructed and played, a valuable revival.
A century on, the First World War’s prompting a crop of expected revivals. And this unexpected one by John Van Druten (1901-1957), usually remembered for turning Christopher Isherwood’s 1930s Berlin stories into I Am A Camera, humbly paving the way for their final musical flowering as Cabaret. Yet a recent Southwark Playhouse revival of Camera showed it favourably, while the Finborough’s production of Van Druten’s London Wall was a searing experience.
Like those pieces, Flowers of the Forest is well-constructed. Unlike them, it doesn’t have a linear structure. The two outer scenes are set in the 1934 play’s present-day. Between come two wartime scenes, contrasting 1914s hopeful patriotism with the post-Somme gloom of 1916. The Huntbach sisters’ soldier lovers are dead, the patriotic certainty of Richard’s poetry assuming the disillusion and agony of battle, while their parents maintain an ill-informed belief in the beauty of warfare.
Victoria Johnstone’s set opens-out for the wartime scenes, as they reveal the tensions and sadness suggested in the 1934 opening. By the time they close again as the action returns to 1934, these emotions intensify to trauma. Naomi’s childless marriage to affluent, artistic Lewis, his serenity contrasting to his wife’s haunted experience, is contented but clearly a matter of emotional compromise.
But war’s wounds emerge through the doomed young artist lover of Lewis’s secretary Beryl, his brain tumour introducing a supernatural element as Naomi‘s dead lover speaks through him. It’s an element that can be off-putting, though Van Druten allows for scepticism, and seeking contact with the dead was common among the bereaved of the post-war generation.
There’s a hint of the time interest found the same decade in J B Priestley. And it’s well-played in Anthony Biggs’ revival. And well-acted, though Debra Penny seems awkward with Mercia’s perpetual sourness. Patrick Drury brings a gentle firmness to the Reverend Huntbacher, maintaining sympathy though the ati-German hostility, while Alwyne Taylor shows how fear and moral horror fire her hatred.
But it’s Sophie Ward’s Naomi, face picked-out at scene ends by Charlie Lucas’s lighting, who brings the complexity of experience and memory to this valuable rediscovery
Beryl Hodgson: Victoria Rigby.
Naomi Jacklin: Sophie Ward.
Lewis Jacklin: Mark Straker.
Matheson: Gareth McLeod.
Mercia Huntbach: Debra Penny.
Leonard Dobie: Max Wilson.
Rev Percy Huntbach: Patrick Drury.
Mrs Huntbach: Alwyne Taylor.
Richard Newton-Clare: Gabriel Vick.
Thomas Lindsay: Daniel Fine.
Mrs Ettles: Jennie Goossens.
Director: Anthony Biggs.
Designer: Victoria Johnstone.
Lighting: Charlie Lucas.
Sound: Gareth McLeod.
Assistant director: Joshua Stamp-Simon.