Jack Bradfield’s new dystopian play, Garden, is as funny as it is clever. It’s hard to say what was strongest on their opening night: the acting, the writing, or the hard hitting moments of meta-theatre. The writer is obviously intensely clever (it actually turned out that I was sitting next to his tute partner, who talked about him with cheerful awe), and he is just as talented as a writer and director. This is a play created by someone of a great many talents alongside a team that’s just as strong. The two leads – Elizabeth, played by Rosa Garland, and the Computer, played by Bea Udale-Smith –took on difficult parts, and gave effortless, precise, flair-loaded performances. Anushka Chakravarti’s Jessica was also wonderfully characterised.
There were a couple of moments of discomfort. There are instances in which some of the more outlandish character quirks come rather too close to caricature for us to engage with the true humour of them, and I’m always unsure when Oxford students put on their best working class janitor accent. And moments where characters gesture at the world around them (one of whom exclaimes ‘It’s all nonsense! It lets us act like no one in the world matters but us!’) are smart and well placed moments of meta-theatre, but edge a little too close to cleverness for its own sake. There were one or two points at which this cleverness did turn into complication, but the genuine comedy and human drama of the play carried it through with no problems.
The play is beautifully staged and directed, with a set, designed by Molly Nickson, that is a work of genius, and probably the best use of Homebase plant pots ever brought to the stage. Seriously, though: having the Computer take pots on and off heads rather than sending actors into the wings was in practice as effective as it was odd, and enabled some really natural, organic acting. The actors bounced funny, light performances of fantastically-written characters off each other, keeping a multi-layered, meaningful play as airy-light and bright as a dandelion head on a sunny day. Get yourself a bike and cycle down to Summertown: this one’s got to be seen.