No-one gets the family they wished for. There’s sibling rivelry and competitiveness, endless bickering, fallings-out between spouses, trouble with the in-laws, secrets, deceptions and heartache.
So, most of us could empathise with Olivia Pennington in Andrew Keatley’s engrossing domestic saga, The Gathered Leaves, which opened on Thursday night at the Park Theatre, Finsbury.
Besides the mundane day-to-day efforts of being a domestic goddess, something Jane Asher, as Olivia, has off pat, she has to referee between three generations brought together for the first time in 17 years to celebrate the birthday of patriarch William.
She anticipates, quite rightly, that nothing was going to be easy about the weekend. We’ve all been there and got the scars.
Keatley’s keenly observed drama puts the family at its heart and in the cast. It’s been well publicised that Asher’s daughter, Katie Scarfe, would be playing her daughter Alice, while Alexander Hanson and son Tom, play her son, Giles, and grandson, Simon. Does casting matter? No, but they all work fluidly together.
While the sniping and recriminations were played out on stage it was lovely to see Tom, during a scene change when the stage was in darkness, furtively put a firm hand on his dad’s shoulder and give it a reassuring squeeze. Yes, it was all going swimmingly.
Clive Francis plays the cantankerous, irascible William whose sharp legal mind, as a former law lord, is being destroyed by vascular dementia. He’s keen to put his house in order before a final stroke robs him of any ability.
The play opens to the sound of The Tardis and two young brothers are acting out a scene from Dr Who. Giles keeps getting it wrong so the autistic Sam takes over, playing both parts word-perfectly.
Fast forward some 30-odd years and Giles, now a doctor, is still playing games with Sam. It’s obvious that William (never called dad or father) is incapable of parenthood, affection or communication. He’s spent a lifetime making mistakes, secretly regretting them, and bullying those closest to him.
The relationship between Hanson’s compassionate Giles and Nick Sampson’s intelligent turn as Sam is endearing and close, more like father and son.
The outspoken Simon (Tom Hanson) squabbles with his sister, vacuous blonde Emily (Georgina Beedle), as all siblings do, while their sullen mother, Sophie (Anna Wilson-Jones), looks for ways to leave her husband. There’s no such thing as happy families.
And into the familial mess returns black sheep Alice (Scarfe) who was driven out after falling pregnant, out of wedlock, accompanied by her now teenage daughter.
It’s a weekend fraught with tension.
Nick Sampson doesn’t overplay Sam’s idiosyncrasies but instead gives an affectionate and insightful performance of a man coping with autism. He’s incapable of lying or looking at anyone and Sam admits, in a moment of candour, that he’s lonely and likely to remain so.
He forms an uneasy friendship with Alice’s young daughter, Aurelia (Amber James), two outsiders uncomprehending of the complex Pennington relationships.
While it is easy to dismiss William’s cold aloofness Clive Francis has a memorable and moving scene with his only grandson when he tries to stress the importance of the family unit, only for Tom to rebuff his traditional views and values.
Jane Asher is far too youthful-looking to play Olivia as a 73-year-old which is how Keatley describes her. It seems impossible that she could be the mother of grey-haired Giles and the mature Sam. Her character is underwritten with her being given little to do other than whip up a nice meal and look exasperated.
A lot of The Gathered Leaves will be recognisable from the ups-and-downs of our own families’ lives so, as such, doesn’t really tell us anything new. But the performances are well-rounded and deeply compelling, subtly exposing the Pennington’s flaws as well as their strengths.
But I do wonder whether the drama, defly directed by Antony Eden, would be more geared towards a TV production. It has 20 scenes, over five acts, with the stage plunged into darkness between each one as cast members come and go and props are shifted. That’s a lot of toing-and-froing and it caused the production to over-run on opening night.
The Gathered Leaves runs at Park Theatre until August 15.
The Gathered Leaves
Andrew Keatley’s engrossing domestic drama, The Gathered Leaves, gives a root and branch review to the problems facing the Pennington family after bullying patriarch, William, summons the clan.