Sometimes, you go to see a play which is so up its own arse that sitting through it becomes a chore in itself, at which point one’s critical “capabilities” switch off and it becomes impossible to see the performances because the play keeps getting in the way, so I offer my apologies should anyone connected with this production read this review. I also try and promise not to waffle on interminably about the many errors in the text in terms of the gardening history aspect of the play.
This was the final performance of the Rose Bruford College season of performances, so the house was full of talent (not all of it on the stage) and there was more than a hint of “end of term show” about the place – whooping and laughing and patting each other on the back, and filled with the slightly ribald type of laughter you get when people see their school chums on the stage doing naughty things – as well as the type when the audience know the performers and laugh at the performances rather than any inherent funniness of the play. We went to see this because, on the face of it, it seemed to be about the great 18th century landscape designer Lancelot “Capability” Brown – one of my personal household gods. I think both of us were expecting a play like Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia”, but what we got was an interminable piece of pretentious wank (literally) which had me shifting in my seat and glancing at my watch every five minutes or so in case there was still time for a couple of cards of bingo if we left quickly enough.
The premise of the play (which sank practically without trace after its professional premiere – one wonders why?) is that “Capability” Brown helps his younger, randier brother gain a major landscaping commission, which involves relocating a village. The villagers object to this, leading to confrontations between the villagers themselves and the army cadets employed on the digging. During the excavations in the park, human bones are unearthed. The Gamekeeper who (it proves) did the dastardly deed, is constantly bothered by a strange girl running around the stage like a hyperactive Ophelia. She turns out to be the ghost of the sister of one of the villagers, whom her mother has told for many years that her father and sister suddenly decided to emigrate one night. The gamekeeper has (for some reason unexplained) kept the murdered girl’s skull and therefore she cannot rest until it has been interred with the rest of her bones. During all this, Asquith Brown is seduced by the murdered girl’s sister, taught how to wank effectively by his older brother and then comprehensively fingered up the arse by the girl. An irritating lady with an easel and palette wanders in and out, complaining that she cannot paint a landscape which is in a constant state of flux (the character is not actually called “Mrs. Blantantly Obvious Cypher” but she could well have been). Stretch all this out over 3 hours and you have exactly the kind of evening which ends with me coming out of the theatre “with that face on”. Hey, I could have been watching “Britain’s Got Talent” all night – that’s why I was pissed off. Really. Performing budgies and chavs from Erith and Wembley trying to prove they’re the next Celine Dion, all introduced by comedy geniuses (cough) Ant and Dec would have entertained me more.
Sure, there were some good performances on the stage. Jessica Brown was a wonderfully earthy (in every sense of the word – most of the cast looked as if they had just finished rolling around in the midden) Ellen. Laura Doherty maintained the difficult part of Hesp with style, although her accent was more Jane Horrocks than Jane Austen. Joseph Greenslade obviously has a great future ahead of him – primarily as a Baldrick stand-in (if at any point in the evening he had turned to the audience and said “My Lord, I have a cunning plan” then I suspect he would have been washed off the stage as the audience collectively pissed themselves with delighted hysterics). And Janice Burne was wonderfully detached as the exasperated lady painter. But the play kept getting in the way and I couldn’t wait for it to be over. Until you actually fathom what is going on (its eventually spelled out for you so pointedly that it’s a wonder the text doesn’t call for a drum roll and cymbals at this point), Lena Kaur’s Bliss is just an irritating and baffling interruption. The juxtaposition of low comedy (think of some of Shakespeare’s most strained “hilarious moments”), high falutin’ sentiment and sheer “what the fuck is going on-ism” gets very wearying very quickly. And I’m sorry, but the constant references to sexual activity are either just the mark of a very jejune playwright trying to shock or one who needs a damned good screwing to release some tension. I’m no prude about sex, but when its presented gratuitously just for effect, then I start feeling a bit like Mary Whitehouse and go into spitting-feathers mode. If anyone can tell me exactly why Asquith Brown slips off his breeches and masturbates furiously (in accordance with the extremely graphic “rules of play” recounted by his elder brother) in the middle of a field,, then apparently willingly goes on his hands and knees in order to get comprehensively buggered by a woman using her fingers, or why a genteel lady painter in panniers suddenly feels it necessary to publicly lick the right nipple of a filthy villager actually achieves in terms of characterisation or plot, then please do jot it down on a postcard and let me know (thought: does she have nostalgie de a boué (dreams of the dirt) fantasies? No, she’s just been railing about how the extensive earthworks have turned her bucolic landscape into 11 acres of mud. Geddit? Has the author hit you hard enough with this metaphor yet?).
Mix all this in with coco-roju samba music interspersed with “didley deedly didelly dee dee de doo” sub-Riverdance vocals and scenes which are over in less than a minute involving hysterical girls a la Mad Margaret, comedy yokels with alarming facial hair dressed in costumes so obviously and regularly sponge-printed all over with grey-green “mud” by the costume department that they begin to appear like the worst stencilling excesses of Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen ("don’t turn the sponge round, girls! Otherwise your “mud” won’t look like a repeating pattern!”) and you have an evening which would give any self-respecting landscape architect the screaming ab-dabs. There must be better plays than this for young actors to be in, surely?
And “Capability” Brown never worked with any of his family on landscape projects. And didn’t have a brother called Asquith. He designed 200 or so estates, not 50. “Alnick” is pronounced “Annick” not “All-nick”. The "rare pine trees" you were planting were wretched Cupressus leylandii from B&Q's garden centre. And William Chambers’ “Dissertation on Oriental Gardening” wasn’t published until 1772, and was not a critique on the landscape movement. So there.