‘Garden’: A Cerebral Piece With A Very Human Heart

Once again, Jack Bradfield and Poltergeist Theatre prove that they’re cleverer than us. In the nicest possible way. Garden, Bradfield’s latest piece of new writing, takes everything that last summer’s xx had, and pushes it further: succinct wit, a diverse range of characters, engaging physicality and staging, and a plot hinging on a scientific/philosophical concept which an audience member like me could, at best, grasp a vague understanding of.

Poltergeist’s work has been consistently strong, and Garden is no departure from this. For a piece of student new writing (albeit one developed on the Royal Court’s Young Writers programme), it is uniquely considered and deeply felt. Bradfield is able to create characters bearing no resemblance to himself in a fully fleshed-out and empathetic way. The dialogue is snappy and sharp, and allows the actors to convey far more than what they are literally saying. Although little actually happens over the course of the play – it is entirely set in a laboratory and its environs, and could reasonably be described as a fusion of The Office and The Matrix – we remain engaged with the characters and their different motivations throughout: the office crushes, the petty rivalries, the tension between boss and employee. Bradfield, at his best, hones in on these personal stories, using the overarching scientific plot as a backdrop for their interactions. This is for the best, as the theorising seemed to be lost on a portion of the audience. Kudos also has to be given (as in xx) to Bradfield’s equal treatment of same-sex relationships – this was appreciated, even if it did not come across on stage, as Bradfield himself was filling in for a female actor due to illness.

It is entirely set in a laboratory and its environs, and could reasonably be described as a fusion of The Office and The Matrix

The direction, also by Bradfield, was as strong as the writing. It is clear that the company are a well-oiled machine, and more than that, how much they actually like each other. The production as a whole was slick and accomplished –from the coherence of their overall design to how comfortable and well-rehearsed the actors seemed with each other. The movement was diverse and engaging, with actors being pushed around the stage and tapped in and out of the action by The System (Bea Udale-Smith), and an innovative use of plant pots. Particular highlights came when the sound, lighting and movement came perfectly together to create a transition – an entertaining dance with psychedelic lighting to mark the beginning of an office party, or chaotic white noise, flashing lighting, and a set transition to mark a big reveal in the plot (no spoilers). Molly Nickson, Linden Hogarth and Alice Boyd should be congratulated for their set, lighting and sound design respectively. They were seamless, innovative, and complemented the action perfectly, while still respecting the North Wall’s stripped-back space. The use of an on-stage iPad to control projections onto a screen in real time provided plenty of visual gags, and was a method I’d never seen before on stage.

Bradfield’s writing was beautifully acted by a confident cast. It was a real ensemble piece, with acting consistently strong across the board. Joe Peden and Anushka Chakravarti drew laughs with their nervous romance and social awkwardness, while Adam Goodbody’s cool-guy janitor glided comfortably around the stage, chummy with everyone and easily the audience favourite. The issue of writing and playing a working-class character (with accompanying accent and mannerisms) has been raised, but he was never an object of ridicule, and his confidence and humanity carried many of the scenes he was in. Georgie Murphy was fittingly tense as the neurotic boss of the lab, and Max Reynolds and Kate Weir showcased their excellent comic timing as an enigmatic billionaire and a middle-management council official. Bea Udale-Smith, as the central narrator, handled the demands of the role (and the iPad) with confidence. Even Bradfield, a last-minute addition to the cast, would have been indistinguishable from the proficiency of the rest, were it not for the script in his hand.  Rosa Garland’s Elizabeth was the most difficult to read. At times emotionless and brutal, violent, or achingly fragile, her internal turmoil was portrayed in a nuanced and sensitive way by Garland.

I would heartily recommend Garden, provided you’re able to get a ticket. Although it left me feeling more confused than I had been ninety minutes before, it was touching, beautifully designed, and very entertaining. Bradfield and the Poltergeist team have another success in the bank in this cerebral piece with a very human heart.

Garden plays at the North Wall from Thursday to Saturday of 6th Week.