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Review: Storm in a Flower Vase

The story of Constance Spry


This fragile portrait of Constance Spry, celebrated floral designer (and inventor of Coronation Chicken), is a delicate, cultivated piece. It takes a while to germinate - the first half an hour or so of middle-class chit-chat feels rather inconsequential - but this interval of incubation makes the play’s eventual blossoming into a full-bodied and beguiling biography all the more pleasing.

The cast are not of the common or garden variety. Penny Downie as Spry leads the company with a delightfully verdant portrayal. Downie plays all the formal strictures of the period whilst also managing to banish them utterly with an eloquent visage that tells the story with equal clarity to the words - every grin and grimace revealing a bountiful bouquet of emotions that make us fall utterly in love with her. Her lesbian relationship with the painter ‘Gluck’, a tender and thoughtful performance from Carolyn Backhouse, is dealt with in a sensitive and subtle manner. Much like everything else in her life, sexuality seems to take a back-seat to Spry’s overwhelming passion for her work and her love affair with flowers.

Some of the longer scenes are broken up with Downie performing extracts from talks and lectures on floral design that Spry gave at various schools and Women’s Institute meetings. These are delivered with such radiant warmth and enthusiasm that we’d gladly have sat through the full-length versions - we want to know more about how she created arrangements from conches and cabbage leaves...

There’s excellent support from Sally George as Val and Sheila Ruskin as Rosemary, and a centrepiece turn from Carol Royle as the deliciously camp Syrie Maughan - interior designer and ex-wife of the poet, Somerset. It’s presumably upon Maughan’s famed love of clear white minimalism that the fine and functional set is based - all clean lines and uncluttered curves, increasingly embellished with bewildering arrays of foliage as the play proceeds.

The story of Constance Spry is not particularly shocking or sensational, but it is full of real passion, and details the life of an English Rose who deserves to be a favourite flower-girl. A fragrant evening of captivating chronicle with the skilful sowing of sapphic seeds. Well worth a whiff.

GT gives this 4/5

Storm In A Flower Vase runs at the Arts Theatre until October 12th. More details at: artstheatrewestend.co.uk

Words: Richard Unwin

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