“It could be the end of flower arranging, it could be the end of everything”
When I found out that Storm in a Flower Vase was about the woman who invented the recipe for Coronation Chicken, I assumed it was going to be a tragic story of mental illness. After all, what kind of sick and twisted mind would put raisins in a savoury dish. But no, instead it’s about that age-old combination of flowers and lesbians. For some people, Constance Spry will be “a household name”, I know this is true because the flyer for the show says so. If like me you hadn’t heard of her, here’s her Wikipedia page.
Anton Burge’s play focuses on her life in the 1930s, when she jacked in her job as a teacher to become a florist and set about revolutionising the world of flower arranging, becoming the preferred choice of high society but also democratising it in a way that had never been done before through the use of everyday materials, like using a pickle jar to prop up a collection of wild flowers and grasses (basically she invented Blue Peter too). And in amongst all her business affairs was a remarkably complex personal – living secretly in sin with men, becoming the patron and more of a noted lesbian artist, this ought to be a fascinating tale of a fascinating person.
But it isn’t. The play’s structure is far too messy – Burge intersperses various scenes from Spry’s life with tiny snippets of talks she gave at various girls’ schools and women’s institutes which add nothing of value and break up any real sense of atmosphere. And Alan Strachan’s over-literal direction just increases the bittiness of these short sequences with endless substantial scene changes, stagehands are forever popping bits of furniture here and there, rolling out carpet on the floor, shifting bucket after bucket of flowers and foliage. It’s all so busy and yet achieves nothing really substantial. Only the nifty reveal of a painting as the first half closes has the stylish grace the production aches for and it is over in a heartbeat.
And the writing is difficult, often veering into just overblown nonsense as sentences that no human being has ever uttered are forced into the characters’ mouths. Part of the problem is the crowbarring in of umpteen floral analogies for life, which might have worked in a lighter piece with a knowing sense of humour, but delivered here with all the seriousness of an outbreak of aphids are just chronically bad. And it doesn’t get better elsewhere, the potentially interesting take on women pushing their boundaries, both professionally and personally, is reduced to broad pronouncements rather than subtly convincing debate, its message hammered home like the unforgivable way Carolyn Backhouse’s Gluck confirms her lesbianism.
The presence of Penny Downie in the cast was one of the main reasons for booking and I’d love to be able to say she redeems it but that would be a lie, as her performance has been infected like mildew by the toxicity of the production. Her Constance is far too overwrought far too easily as if shouting IT’S ALL SO DRAMATIC might actually make the play so – it just doesn’t work. She’s constantly forced on the move physically and emotionally by the play’s structure that generally by the time she’s wrung her hands several times, emoted out loud and shoved a flower into a block of oasis, the scene is invariably over and so whatever flower arranging skills she must have picked up are kept hidden from us.
There are some brief highlights – Carol Royle’s Syrie Maugham (sometime wife to a philandering Somerset) spits high society disdain with amusing venom and Christopher Ravenscroft twinkles gracefully in the underwritten part of Shav, Constance’s husband of sorts – but they are few and far between. For me, this play was like grasping a nettle but it may well appeal to others who consider it like holding a rose – I’d still watch out for the thorns though…