Saturday, 4 October 2014

Theatre review: Flowers of the Forest

Both written and set in 1934, as the consequences of Hitler's ascent started to become apparent, John Van Druten's pacifist drama Flowers of the Forest looks with some concern at the increasing possibility of a Second World War, by looking back to the First. Naomi (Sophie Ward) lives in London with her well-off husband Lewis (Mark Straker,) their lives largely revolving around books and art. Many of their generation still hold onto the romanticised view of World War I as a noble sacrifice, but the couple are among those who view it as a pointless and ruthless waste of life. So when Lewis' secretary Beryl (Victoria Rigby) reveals her boyfriend contributed to a new book exposing the horrors of the front, he's invited to meet them. Leonard's (Max Wilson) enthusiasm for his subject, as well as some papers from her recently-deceased father's house, set Naomi off remembering her relationship with a doomed war poet, and the play's middle act flashes back to her childhood home in 1914 and 1916.

Here the feelings of the war being a glorious sacrifice against an inhuman energy are still being successfully fanned by propaganda - Naomi's sister Mercia (a wonderfully misanthropic Debra Penny) breaks off her engagement when it turns out Tommy (Daniel Fine) doesn't agree that the entire German race should be annihilated. His friend Richard (Gabriel Vick,) though, is enthusiastic. Two years later his jingoistic poetry has turned bitterly realistic, and the loss of his lust for life also seems to have dulled his love for Naomi.

Under Anthony Biggs, who also directs here, the Jermyn Street Theatre seems to be pursuing an artistic policy that copies the Finborough's, of new writing alternating with "lost" classics. Flowers of the Forest is so lost even Van Druten's estate had forgotten about it, but although certainly flawed - there's a cheesiness to many of the lines, and I don't just mean when it makes a sudden lurch into the supernatural near the end - it's mostly satisfying, with a number of likeable characters. Van Druten leaves you in little doubt about what point he's making, but has created characters you don't mind spelling it out to you.

Ward does well to portray the same woman two decades apart, and also notable is Wilson as the consumptive Leonard, whose suspicion that he may not have long to live leads him to seize the day in almost violently enthusiastic fashion. The front row of seating has been taken out to enable Victoria Johnstone's set design to go through quite a big transformation between the play's two times and locations, and the fact that the history of the 1910s has been viewed through an - at the time, and arguably even now, urgently topical - 1930s prism, means Flowers of the Forest doesn't fade indistinguishably into this year's mass of World War I plays.

Flowers of the Forest by John Van Druten is booking until the 18th of October at the Jermyn Street Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

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