Some plays grab you by the scruff of the neck to confront you with the extremes of human joy and suffering; others do so by gentler means. This new piece by Anton Burge – about the pioneering floral decorator Constance Spry – is in the latter category, but, like the white roses of which Spry was famously fond, it grows slowly into something rather beautiful.
For those who, like me, have previously dismissed flower-arranging as one of those tedious pastimes with which women once frittered away their time while men went out and ran the world, Spry’s story comes as a surprise. As well as a society florist, she was also a celebrated author and a social reformer: in suggesting that Britain’s home-makers fill old jelly moulds and milk jugs with flowers, she can even be seen as the originator of today’s fascination with ‘shabby chic’.
Burge has honed in on a four-year period of Spry’s life during the 1930s; the time when her business was at its height, and she fell passionately in love with the painter Hannah Gluckstein. The first half lacks drama – it’s difficult to muster much excitement about Spry’s planned talk to the Chislehurst Women’s Institute – but Spry’s meeting with Gluckstein soon picks up the pace.
The play is over-long – as are several of the individual scenes – and the performances are uneven; but seasoned RSC actress Penny Downie is good as Spry, and Carolyn Backhouse convinces as Gluckstein. It’s good, too, to see a new play dominated by engaging parts for older actresses; rather inspiring, in fact, much like the life of Spry herself.
By Laura Barnett