‘Under the Mulberry Tree’ (Studio at the Festival Theatre: 3 – 12 April’14)

Vincent van Gogh, Mulberry Tree. 1889. Post-Impressionism. Oil on canvas. Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, CA, USA.

‘There are wrap-around melodies for solo voice and piano. Cicadas are heard’

Editorial Rating: Unrated

Writer Timothy Jones’s first stage play bears the bruised fruit of sadness. Vincent van Gogh’s painting of ‘The Mulberry Tree’ is the cause; its vigorous combination of colours prompting a testing story of entangled character and circumstance.

This mulberry is in the garden of a small hotel – a guest house really – just outside Eze, on the Mediterranean coast, between Nice and Monaco. The Daily Telegraph describes Eze as the ‘perfect Springtime break’.

Only, Not.

Certainly not after you have seen Under the Mulberry Tree. Yes, we’re in the 1950s, when 95,000 old francs could buy you a villa a few minutes’ drive from the beach; but this is not Private Lives modestly revisited and downsized. No, this play broods with concern.

 

Clockwise: Joanna Bending, Jeremy Todd, Adam Slynn, Roger Ringrose.

Clockwise: Joanna Bending, Jeremy Todd, Adam Slynn, Roger Ringrose.

 

Jack and Connie Boothroyd, married 20 years, hot and bothered, happen upon Monsieur Guillaume’s hotel. Connie is vulnerable, sensitive, and has a lot of pills in her bag to help her cope. Joanna Bending is in this demanding part and – to her considerable credit – has to act her stockings off. She, at least, is looking for a good holiday. Husband, Jack, did not enjoy the long drive down to the Côte d’Azur. He did not speak for the four hours between Paris and Lyons. More of a Scarborough man is Jack. Solid Jeremy Todd does North Yorkshire in no-nonsense, ill-tempered spades, but you nevertheless feel his discomfort – and pain at the end.

Jack complains of endless warning signs of ‘Chaussée déformée’ and to speak plainly, as he does, Under the Mulberry Tree feels like that. The script is pot holed (made for Edinburgh!). It is uneven, fraught with jarring and uncomfortable issues, but at the same time you just wonder why the characters are not on a different and easier road.

Pretty scenery though. A broad terrace with a couple of café tables and chairs, a comfortable chaise longue, an upright piano with gramophone on top, and drinks to hand. Light wood blinds in (shaky) arched doorways. The bare mulberry tree, of course. The stage suffused, it seemed, with shuttered evening light. There are wrap-around mélodies for solo voice and piano from Poulenc. Cicadas are heard but not for long. The tree is in bud at the end of the play but that’s Miracle-Gro playing false.

Jack is hard on Connie and rude to just about everyone else. Connie, bravely, wants more than a husband. She particularly wants to be a mother. Enter obliging virile Julian, 21-ish, in bathing shorts, who has a thing for the older woman because his mother corrupted him. He is also Guillaume’s lover. Adam Slynn, as Julian, has to be both parasite and lost boy, which is not easy. There’s Guillaume’s rich sister, elegant and rather silly Gilberte (Annabel Capper) to stroke his vanity as well.

Roger Ringrose plays Guillaume. It is a sympathetic, mellow, part and Ringrose does perceptive insouciance very well. He has, as he puts it (with a nod to the writer’s fondness for Apollinaire) ‘found his lost time’ and will not give it up lightly, especially to the neurotic English. He could be funny but is careful to stick to kind and amusing.

Director Hannah Eidinow may have been drawn to Under the Mulberry Tree because it is – at a stretch – not too dissimilar from the four-hander Playing with Grown Ups by Hannah Patterson that she directed with Theatre 503 last year. Unfortunately Timothy Jones’ play is more of a strain.

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 3 April)

Visit Festival Theatres Trust, Under the Mulberry Tree homepage here.