There’s a new current of artistic energy this year at the Ensemble Theatre. The little theatre in Kirribilli seems to be spending its 2017 season grabbing audiences with pleasantly quirky stories and finely-observed performances, and The Plant is no exception. Like a Little Shop of Horrors that’s traded the grotesqueries of greed for the realities of grief, this leafy death drama will make your heart sing.
Sue’s (Sandy Gore) husband died three years ago, and as time has passed the family unit has splintered. Her children have their own coping mechanisms for grief: Daniel (Garth Holcombe), a teacher, has thrown himself into his work; Erin (Helen Dallimore), a type-A publisher and mother to of two young children, has refused to show any cracks, hardening under self-imposed pressure to keep it together for the family; and Naomi (Briallen Clarke), the youngest – and who had a special bond with her dad – just smokes a lot of weed. None of them seem equipped or able to offer Sue the emotional support she needs.
Left alone, with no concrete sense of who she might be without her husband and children to define her, Sue begins talking to a potted rex begonia. She names it Claire. She takes it to the beach. Her children are a bit worried at first, but things get seriously weird when they show up for dinner and are greeted by a woman dressed as a flowering begonia (Michelle Lim Davidson). Who is she? Where did she come from? And why does Sue keep calling her Claire?
Writer Kit Brookman has flirted with the limits of realism to explore human attachment before: in A Rabbit for Kim Jong-Il, the titular rabbit came to anthropomorphic life, chatting to the audience and other characters onstage. And he has dealt with complex inter-generational family relationships before, too – most recently in Belvoir’s deeply-felt but unwieldy The Great Fire. In The Plant, there’s a sense that you’re watching a writer fully realise their strengths. It’s more insightful than Great Fire, more purposeful than Rabbit, and there’s a confidence and ease to its script and story that helps us to trust it, even when it’s asking us to suspend all our disbelief and surrender to the play’s heightened reality.
The plant hasn’t really come to life – ‘Claire’ is a woman dressed as a begonia; and while this is still absurd, the journey to find out who she really is, and what her presence means for a family who has forgotten to be a family, is charmingly and affectingly relatable.
Brookman’s script, which melds humour and deep pain with disarming ease, is beautifully supported and heightened by director Elsie Edgerton-Till’s vision. She keeps the focus of the play on people, rather than, say, the fact that one of those people is wearing an elaborate suit of greenery. She has found, on Isabel Hudson’s judiciously simple set of velvety greens, the beauty in our futile, clumsy attempts to manage life’s hardest moments. And she’s highlighted it with warmth, fostering an open-hearted approach to these characters and this slightly batty plot. Her cast, led by Gore’s vulnerable but still wonderfully spiky performance as Sue, feel fully realised and all too human.
Brookman’s empathy for our scrambling, struggling responses to pain, and the ways we try and fail to connect with each other, is the best thing about this play; he loves that we try, that we fail, that we reach out and curl inwards and reach out again. For a play about a flowering plant, it’s unquestionably human.