The Tulip Wars

Mark R. Giesser
Giant Olive Theatre Company
Lion and Unicorn Theatre
(2010)

Production photo

In the seventeenth century there was a craze for tulips that saw them fetching fantastic prices and led to a speculator's boom. Alexandre Dumas père based a novel on it in which horticulturalists compete in an effort to produce a black tulip and win a prize of 100,000 guilders. There have been films and television series based on it and it is one of the sources for this play with which American Mark Giesser makes his British debut as a dramatist.

A reworking, it appears, of How to Build a Better Tulip, which had its premier at the Acorn Theatre, NY in 2004, it brings that competition forward four centuries to present us with an American plant biologist and a British bio-geneticist in a Lincolnshire college still engaged in the same quest for that elusive tulip with a black flower. It is not exactly their own idea for, unknown to each other, they are descendants of a pair of competing seventeenth-century Haarlem plant breeders whose restless spirits have infiltrated their brains.

By far the best parts of this play are those scenes between the modern botanists and the ancestors inhabiting their minds: Peter Gerald's Carolus Hoofdorn and Cornelia Vanderpol (Tamzin Paskins), his Haarlem rival, are by far the strongest and most interesting performances in this play.

It opens awkwardly with a confused and crudely guyed scene in which new arrival Dr Braddock, a southern lady from Savannah, is introduced to her assigned greenhouse by her asthmatic research assistant Sheila (a double from Miss Paskins). It is not until Carolus appears that things get off the ground and Donna King's Audrey Braddock comes into focus.

Adrian Vanderpol, Braddock's British rival, gets a rather manic performance from Edward Kingham (who we've seen do excellent work in the past). Director Ray Shell, who has used sound and lighting to great effect, seems almost to have encouraged his actors to 'be funny' at the cost of losing credibility - a mistake all too easily made by actors playing plodding policemen but that Mr Gerald as Sergeant Ellsworth sensibly avoids. Incidentall, the doubling not only gives the actors an opportunity to demonstrate their versatility but is also an essential part of the story - though I'm not going to tell you how.

Giesser casts his net widely with Vanderpol being arrested as a suspected terrorist, references to 'clandestine organisations that depend upon the honey trade', genetic engineering, the surrender of New Amsterdam to the British and I think he wants us to see a parallel between the tulip 'bubble' and the financial and property speculation that brought our current problems but he fails to make any real points politically or satirically, though he often has an excellent turn of phrase - like 'you never get the guilt off your shoes' or 'a selfish gene as psychological archetype.'

It has the potential to be much better than what is on offer - not that there isn't plenty here to laugh at but it needs refining and a sharper focus on its targets. Mind you, a couple of glasses in the pub downstairs beforehand and you might take a much more benevolent view of it.

Until 28th March 2010

Reviewer: Howard Loxton