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The Gathered Leaves

Andrew Keatley
Dead Letter Perfect in association with Park Theatre
Park Theatre (Park 200)

Clive Francis and Tom Hanson as Simon Pennington Credit: Mark Douet
Amber James as Aurelia Ndjeya and Georgina Beedle as Emily Pennington Credit: Mark Douet
Hamish Brewster as Young Giles Pennington and Oliver Buckner as Young Samuel Pennington Credit: Mark Douet
Nick Sampson as Samuel Pennington, Alexander Hanson as Giles Pennington and Tom Hanson as Simon Pennington Credit: Mark Douet
Nick Sampson as Samuel Pennington and Amber James as Aurelia Ndjeya Credit: Mark Douet
Jane Asher as Olivia Pennington Credit: Mark Douet

It is Easter 1997 during the build up to the elections that were to put Tony Blair in power. In a house in the English countryside, three generations of the Pennington family, who can trace their roots back almost to William the Conqueror, is gathering to celebrate William’s 75th birthday.

It may be springtime, but for William it is an autumnal gathering together to settle things before it becomes too late to do so, he has been diagnosed with the onset of dementia.

In many ways this is a rather old-fashioned family reunion drama of alienation and generational conflict, though its topics of autism, dementia and racism may seem very contemporary. Rather than the carefully shaped acts of drawing room drama, Keatley writes short scenes that move on as soon as they’ve made their point.

Autocratic William (who insists on the use of his Christian name rather than grandpa) drove his daughter Alice away 17 years earlier when she had an illegitimate child with a black man. Now she is home for the first time since, bringing that daughter Aurelia.

William’s eldest son Sam is autistic; now 49 he lives in a nearby care home, and he treats him like an imbecile. Grandson Simon, lectured on the need to produce a son to continue the Pennington line, tells him “you see the world from fifty years ago… you can’t escape its thrall” and Clive Francis, moustached and formal, presents a man of unbending almost Edwardian attitudes with just a hint of the dashing young officer that perhaps he once was.

Was his wife Olivia carefully chosen from suitable stock? Probably, but, though even she can lose her temper with him, Jane Asher plays her as though there was, and still is, real affection. She is one of those capable women who manages to smooth family situations and be what each needs her to be and typically she has secretly, for 17 years, regularly met up with alienated daughter Alice (played by Asher’s actual daughter Katie Scarfe).

A prologue presents two teenage boys acting out a scene from Doctor Who, its relevance not apparent until later unless you’ve checked the cast list and realise that these are brothers Giles and Samuel when young, Hamish Brewster’s Giles desperately trying to keep up with Oliver Buckner’s memory freak Samuel.

Nick Sampson beautifully captures the concentrated focus of the autistic in his adult Samuel. As his protective doctor brother Alexander Hanson makes the adult Giles supportive and sympathetic, though his wife Sophie (Anna Wilson-Jones) would probably have different ideas: here there is another source of tension.

Tom Hanson plays their son Simon (another real-life offspring), forceful if a little loutish in his rebellion, and Georgina Beadle his sister Emily. Amber James gives his cousin Aurelia a confidence that suggests she has inherited some of her grandmother’s skills.

Director Antony Eden keeps the action bubbling and very watchable as new layers are uncovered in these relationships but this remains a domestic conflict. Keatley never digs deeply into the issues that lie behind this family saga—gentility seems to prevent it.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton