This year marks 50th years since James Saunders' absurdist play was written.
It became the vehicle for Ian McKellen's breakthrough onto the West End after he starred as Godfrey and the play itself won Saunders most promising playwright. In it, Zoe rifles through memories to explain how she got to the day of her funeral.
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One of the joys of the Fringe is when a jewel is re-polished and set before you. James Saunders’ A Scent of Flowers is one. Brilliant, absurdist theatre sparkling at every angle; a semi-surreal structure within which many realisms crystallise. Why does this production, directed by Matthew Parker, work so well? I feel sorry for analysing it. The incandescent writing is matched by an exceptional cast. The play not only states but creates questions such as what is the use of craftsmanship in a coffin – or the enquiry of “all the infinite possibilities that never happened.” Bryan Pilkington’s leery Uncle Edgar delivers some wonderfully witty soliloquies, holding the audience in the palm of a carelessly tossing hand. Sam Saunders as stepbrother Godfrey is magnetic in scenes clashingly playful and desperate, echoing every forgotten sense of young love. Jodyanne Fletcher Richardson renders an assured and quietly magnificent performance in stepmother Agnes’ well-heeled shoes. But it is Charlotte Blake’s embodiment of Zoe that saturates the piece, immersing our minds in the conflicts of human desire, warm yet effortlessly cool, an extraordinary performance. No small coincidence that the name derives from the Greek for ‘life’ – she ‘lives’ the part – this drama aligns to Greek tragedy and the eternal mythical heroine, victim of her own innocence. Jamie Laird as Mr Scrivens also seems born to the role, his darkly delicious demonstrativeness worth the price of admission alone. Blake magically sustains chemistry on different levels with different characters (including Scrivens) at different times. Lighting by Philip Jones is sensational – a performance in its own right. Andy Graham’s sound though immensely clever feels slightly overdone and would be even more effective if taken down a notch. The grandmother seems a misplaced tragedian and maybe, after all, we should see her face as otherwise the audience projects peremptory preconceptions. Nevertheless this is intoxicating, mind-blowing theatre. Black comedy gridlocks with pathos in the heart-wrenching third act. Agnes’ words encircle my brain: “…we didn’t get to know each other very well. But I tried… I shall go home with the thought that there was someone I tried to know, and failed.” What does a person have to say when there is nothing left? Nothing other than what everyone else says. Rarely on the Fringe do you hear any trace of whistle or caterwaul, if typically English-ly restrained; the cast should return for an expected and deserved second call.
Matthew Parker's superb direction brings the play giddingly into the 21st Century. It was moving, lacerating, beyond tender, surreal and at it's very heart truthful beyond words.
I am really excited about this play being back in London after so long. I saw the original in the West End with Ian Mckellan in 1962 which was thrilling.