The Conservatory @ Old Red Lion, London

cast list
Cate Hamer
Tony Bell
Tina Grey
Sarah Howarth
Jamie Samuel

directed by
Charlotte Gwinner
Mark Dooley’s new play is set in a very conventional, familiar, family home. Magnolia walls and blonde wood floors and a heap of pine furniture.

Linda is sitting in her just-completed conservatory listening to Freda Payne’s Band of Gold. As she does so, she ceremoniously throws away a plant. From here unfolds a series of tableaux that flip back and forth in time. Each scene is rife with awkward encounters, dark realisations and a dash of arid English humor.

Linda’s husband has recently committed suicide. Following the tragedy, she has focused all her energy into completing this wicker-filled extension to her home, but things have gone awry. Despite the play’s seemingly light-hearted atmosphere, sign posts are there from the start that things are not quite right, that there is something dark lurking beneath the everyday and familiar.

As Linda, Cate Hamer displays the requisite fragile, desperate neediness. She adeptly conveys the frightened and angry grief one experiences after the death of a loved one. But though her delivery is sometimes unnervingly close to home, her performance never become too raw or overwhelming to watch.

Linda’s eagerness to have her conservatory completed results in a misconstrued intimacy with Billy. This steady, though somewhat muted, rise in over-familiarity dilutes the sexual tension, leaving the relationship somewhat stagnant.

The interactions between mother and son are more convincing. Linda is depicted as overcompensating and lonely, lacking in maternal edge. Jamie Samuel is very sympathetic as her son Michael, to the point where, when his character commits an act of violence against his mother, it is rather hard to take. Though his sense of shame permeates and the absence of eye contact is startling, this was not quite enough to create a convincing emotional distance between them.

This is a shame, because Dooley deftly writes awkwardness into his work. He also excels at comic banter and some lines are laugh-out-loud hilarious. He also has a nice line in satire on society at large: Billy’s wife takes a career enhancement course in sign language although she works in a call centre.

Closure is delivered with the completion of the conservatory, but the final scene, dedicated to Michael’s return, feels tacked on and unnecessary, something of an afterthought.

Although the play does become slightly repetitive and there is an air of predictability about the entire suburban, middle class set-up it depicts, The Conservatory is, in the main, a satisfying and successful piece of writing; a well-observed, darkly comic drama on rebuilding life after death. Given that this is Dooley’s first full length play, it is marvellously promising.

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