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
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After an uncertain start the play gained momentum. We did not like Penny Downie's performance as Constance Spry . My sister had been a student of Constance's and she criticised her vocal performance and characterisation. The play did well to set Constance's life within her 1930's social sphere and connections to the bohemian artistic set. The flower arrangements were beautiful and reminiscent of that era's elegance.
This is the best play I have seen in my life. Anton Burge deserves to win play of the year in London for his sensitive portrayal of Constance Spry's private life. Christopher Ravenscroft is exceptional as Henry Spry and really all the actors are fantastic. I am going to see this play again which was so moving.