STORM IN A FLOWER VASE
by Anton Burge.
Arts Theatre Great Newport Street WC2H 7JB To 12 October 2013.
Tue-Sat 7.30pm Mat Thu, Sat & 2, 9 Oct 2.30pm.
Runs 2hr 40min One interval.
TICKETS: 020 7836 8463.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 20 September.
Revealing turmoil behind the neat arrangements.
A cosy image of “chintzy cheeriness” surrounds once-celebrated flower arranger Constance Spry, It’s magnified by her appointment to arrange flowers for society and royal occasions. Yet, behind the image was a searching for emotional fulfilment, certainly in the period 1932-1936, covered by Anton Burge’s play.
At start and finish Constance seems happy with her husband (and former boss) Henry Spry, despite knowing of his affair with her assistant Val. And Constance conducts a passionate relationship with a woman artist known as ‘Gluck’.
Except, ‘Shav’ Spry, whose name she took, was never her husband (he did marry Val after Constance died). Spry’s public identity is portrayed in excerpts from talks she gave to various groups, showing her originality and enthusiasm in arranging flowers – and bouquets without flowers, making attractive arrangement affordable to anyone. Despite Burge’s title, even a vase wasn’t necessary if there was an old pickle-jar at home.
Flower arranging was easy compared with arranging human relationships. In a key scene the happiness flowing from love of Gluck changes overnight on holiday in Cornwall to the start of bitter separation. It’s one of the best scenes in a play that tells a lot, but is captive to its linear structure.
It’s not a matter of simply being shorter (though that could helpfully result), but of giving a definite point to each scene, such as the Cornwall episode has, moving characters forward, rather than, as often, just chronicaling events. The memorable moments come when something significant emerges – as when the slides accompanying her lecture go crazy as Constance’s mind spins out of control.
Amid a strong cast, Penny Downie is outstanding, finding just the right tone – the extra emphasis and slight head movement when addressing Stepney schoolchildren is a charactertistic detail, while throughout Downie clearly reveals the emotional processes behind Spry’s words.
Christopher Ravenscroft deploys his ability to suggest rather than openly express intensity of feeling, and use a soft voice with asperity or to argue the point he’s making, to invest Shav with emotional complexity. And Alan Strachan’s accomplished direction rightly gives the flowers, in Spry’s arrangements, the last word.
Constance Spry: Penny Downie.
Shav: Christopher Ravenscroft.
Cal Pirie: Sally George.
Rosemary Hume: Sheila Ruskin.
Hannah Gluckstein: Carolyn Backhouse.
Syrie Maugham: Carol Royle.
Director Alan Strachan.
Designer: Morgan Large.
Lighting: James Whiteside.
Sound: Mark Dunne.
Projections: Duncan Mclean.