The Birds and the Bees
Mark Crawford, adapted by James McDermott
The New Wolsey Theatre, John Stalker Productions, Norwich Theatre & Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds
New Wolsey, Ipswich
This is a play that in some ways harks back to the type of regional theatre that was popular 20 years ago: a play in a box set about real people in real life, dramatic settings, usually with a message to convey. But if you are an Alan Ayckbourn fan and are expecting something along the lines of Seasons Greetings crossed with The Good Life, you’re in for a bit of a shock.
Yes, this is a genuinely funny play with some well written dialogue and it’s about family relationships and farcical situations, something Ayckbourn is a past master at. And yes, it's set on a farm and one of the themes is how to manage the environment re bees vs pesticides. But for a play where the publicity largely features gardens and bee hives, the set is in fact two bedrooms in a farmhouse.
And this should give you a clue to the play’s content, because as you are probably aware, ‘birds and bees’ can have two meanings and this production takes firm hold of the alternative.
So, it’s mainly about sex: lack of it, wanting it, who you have it with and why. And there’s nudity—quite a bit of it. So if you don’t want to see lots of wobbly bits exposed on stage, this is defiantly not for you.
Mark Crawford is a Canadian writer whose original play set on a turkey farm in Canada has been translated to Norfolk by James McDermott. Gail—a divorcee of a certain age—is a ‘down to earth’ farmer's girl who keeps bees and hires out the rest of her land to the local ‘salt of the earth’ Norfolk born and bred farmer Earl. They have history as 20 years before, Earl’s wife ran off with Gail’s husband. Earl has since played the field (pun intended), but Gail has kept to herself and her bees.
Onto the scene arrives Gail’s daughter Sarah, whose marriage to a turkey farmer has broken down through lack of sex and hence lack of babies. Keeping to the theme, her job on the farm is to artificially inseminate the turkeys.
Earl is a man of ‘appetites’, but with the breakdown of his last relationship is looking for a new NSA sexual partner. Gail is really not interested—and looking at Earl with his beer belly and tatty off-white Y-fronts, you can probably see why.
Last into the mix is American student Ben staying nearby to research a thesis on bees and why they are dying off in large numbers. He’s naive sexually, but when he ends up in Sarah’s bedroom after a drunken night partying with the locals, he makes the most of the opportunities offered, which leads of course to complications and eventually the grandchild Gail has longed for.
Louise Gold gets under the skin of Gail—she’s prickly, difficult but vulnerable at the same time. Laura Doddington plays her daughter Sarah as irritated, exasperated and confused. They play well off each other and bring out the problems with the relationship, although some of their reactions to the sexual shenanigans seem a bit old fashioned.
Sion Tudor Owen is completely over the top as Earl—a bit of a caricature, which jars at times with the more naturalistic portrayal of the mother / daughter characters. But then he’s probably meant to be larger than life and he comes over as that in more ways than one!
Richard McIver as Ben is too good looking to be a geeky scientist and at 23 really too old to be as naive as he is portrayed. And unfortunately for him, he has the clunky environmental speeches to deal with as well. But his chemistry with Doddington makes their burgeoning relationship as believable as the script allows.
The first half is extremely funny and entertaining in a seaside postcard kind of way, the second a bit sadder and darker. But (spoiler alert) it all ends happily one way or the other.
This probably started off as a play exploring the problems of new farming methods on wildlife, but to be honest this theme is now just shoehorned in between all the sexual references and the bonking. So if you’re looking for a thoughtful play that explores those themes, this isn’t it.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for an enjoyable comedy romp with a bit of a Brian Rix farce thrown in, then get along to the New Wolsey to see this. You won’t be disappointed.
Reviewer: Suzanne Hawkes