views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Flowers of the Forest
Jermyn Street Theatre
26th September 2014


You know you've seen an outstanding play when you miss your tube stop because you're too busy pondering the meaning of life. If you haven't seen Flowers of the Forest (and you probably haven't, as it hasn't been performed in the UK since the Second World War), I recommend going right now.

Jermyn Street Theatre makes a habit of finding old plays, dusting them down, and turning them into masterpieces for the modern audience. Written by John Van Druten, one of the most successful British playwrights of the 1920s, 30s and 40s, Flowers of the Forest had since fallen into obscurity. However, in the centenary of the First World War it seems fitting that this play - set in the periods before and after the war - is seen once again.

The piece opens in 1934 in the luxurious London home of Naomi (Sophie Ward) and Lewis (Mark Straker). With the conflict long forgotten, the couple lead a comfortable but passionless existence filled with literature, art and fine dining. However, when Naomi's sister Mercia (Debra Penny) unexpectedly turns up following the death of their father, she brings the baggage of the past. Forced to examine the objects and letters of her history, Naomi finds herself back in her father's vicarage in 1914, preparing to send her boyfriend Richard (Gabriel Vicke) off to war.

Following Naomi's story, the work forces its audience to engage with the intricacies of human nature, comparing the different attitudes of those around her and discovering what it means to love, live and fight. Then, when Naomi's past and present merge in unexpected ways, the dramatic and surprising conclusion will leave you in tears - and we don't say this lightly. Hard as nails, us.

Flowers of the Forest has a serious message about peace, love and understanding that seems equally relevant today, with new conflicts emerging all the time. Despite its pacifist tone, various attitudes to war are examined: the glorious war of heroism and bravery; the harrowing act; the duty that must be done; and the greatest evil; with plenty of comparisons between war and illness just for good measure. Despite all the doom and gloom, you will laugh as often as you cry, and there are several moments of pure comic genius in the performance. I challenge you to look at a plum without smiling after the play...

It takes a strong cast to make you guffaw one minute and weep the next, and this is exactly is what Flowers of the Forest has - to the point where it becomes hard to pick out a star performer. Each seamlessly move between dramatic speeches and well-timed comedy, while remaining utterly believable. However, perhaps Sophie Ward deserves a special mention for her ability to effortlessly switch between the middle-aged socialite of 1934 and the naïve and eager young woman of 1914.

Jermyn Street Theatre is a particularly appropriate venue for Flowers of the Forest as its limited size means that you get close to the action. Even from the back row, you can practically hear the actors breathe. As you look in on the intimate moments of life, it does seem fitting that you are close to the characters in body as well as mind.

This is all heightened by the fantastic set design, lighting, sound and costumes. The sights, sounds and smells of Naomi's London home and the vicarage of her youth help to convincingly pull you into her world: the bookcase, the curtain-covered window, the family table, the smell of the candle - everything has its role. Music also adds a key element to the performance, not only setting the time and place but also adding an additional layer of meaning to the dialogue. You can't help but notice the irony of cheerful war music playing when the horrors of action are discussed.

In Flowers of the Forest, director Anthony Biggs has crafted a wonderful play that manages to combine poignant messages and tragedy with laugh-out-loud comedy. Unparalleled cast and design and crisp staging melds with a beautifully written script to create a performance that will stay with you forever (or at least until you've missed your tube stop).

Flowers of the Forest opened on 23rd September and runs until 18th October 2014 at the Jermyn Street Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Piccadilly Circus (Piccadilly, Bakerloo)

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