Born in the Gardens

Peter Nichols
A Theatre Royal Bath Production
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, and Touring

Production photo

This must be one of the most difficult comedies to perform and to time, simply because the laughter from the audience is almost constant with the many weird and wonderfully observant witticisms in the writing and crazy Malapropisms from endearingly dotty Maud - although is she quite so sweetly innocent as she at first appears?

She and her forty five year old son Maurice live in a decaying and crumbling mock Tudor house – a symbol of the old way of life they are clinging to. She chats happily to the people on the telly and he converses with the cat - both content in their restricted lives, and both with a penchant for sampling bizarre cocktails. The death of husband and father brings Maurice’s twin sister and elder brother back for the funeral, both creatures of the modern world and determined that the time is right for their mother and brother to escape from the confines of the past – one to move into a modern duplex in London, close to the Labour MP brother, and the other to join his sister in her Californian condominium.

Commissioned in 1979 by Bristol Old Vic to celebrate its 200th anniversary, the play is set firmly in that city with the Gardens referred to being the Bristol Zoo and references made to the gorilla who was born there and happy to stay – much as Maurice prefers his strange confined life, and Maud, who has always longed for a nice modern bungalow is not sure she would be happy in a ‘durex’ while her son went off to share his sister’s ‘condom’.

The story proceeds happily and with the laughter constant – until we are suddenly brought up short with a little sexual interaction between the twins, and references made to the father who had come into their room. Had incest been a part of their lives, and was the father to blame? He was remembered by the elder son as an embarrassing drunkard who had knocked him about – “He liked a drink,” excused Maud - but then she had fond memories of GI lovers and had seemed to be a selfish young woman concerned only with her own pleasures.

There is nothing selfish about Stephanie Cole’s interpretation – she is just adorable as the sweet old lady, her eccentricities and incorrect use of words seeming perfectly and hilariously natural, and Allan Cordurer as Maurice is the perfect complement with his pursed lipped sardonic acceptance of her ways. He has his own eccentricities as a dealer in exotic books, with his twice weekly sexual exploits and his love of trad jazz – especially on vinyl 78’s. (Nothing wrong with that last one in my opinion).

John Gunter excellent diverse set has Maurice’s drum kit centre stage in an oak panelled castellated living room – a suit of armour stands by the door, a cosy chair is in front of the small television – and the whole is dominated by a coffin where the deceased lies surrounded by wreaths and flowers.

Simon Shepherd is the slightly pompous Hedley, trying hard to persuade his mother to be more politically correct. She can see nothing wrong with calling the owner of the corner shop ‘Sabu’. How could he be insulted, she says indignantly, when that was the name of a native prince!

Miranda Foster is a seemingly confident career orientated Queenie, scornful of decaying old England and glad to have escaped – but is her life (and that of Hedley) quite as they would have us believe?

For sheer entertainment value this is wonderfully hilarious evening out, with exceptional performances all round - but lurking below the surface is the poignancy of a sentimentalised past being lost to a consumerist future.

Touring to Plymouth, Mold and Kingston

This production was reviewed by Allison Vale at Bath and by John Thaxter in Kingston

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

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