By Peter Yolland
Richard Everett’s bitter-sweet comedy set in a quintessentially English vicarage garden opened in 2006 to sell-out shows at the Chichester Festival. It follows Grace, a recently widowed vicar’s wife coming to terms with his passing, the loss of her family home to the potential new incumbent, the return of her missionary sister and a daughter with her own issues. It thus provides lots of scope for long hidden secrets to be unearthed and relationships examined.
The play starts with Grace on the phone, her missionary sister Ruth mowing the lawn, her daughter Jo helping clean up and Sarah the potential new incumbent inspecting the vicarage. As the play settles down, the recently deceased Bardolph walks across the garden but is only seen by Grace and not by the other three ladies. The play evolves with scenes involving the four ladies with separate scenes and ones for Grace to reflect with her late husband.
Grace explains how difficult it is for her to grieve after her life as a vicar’s wife and ponders what her future will be. Sarah confides to Jo that she had an affair with a French polisher and how her husband’s forgiveness had started her journey in faith.
The sisters never had a close relationship as children and tension heightens between them after Ruth’s return from Uganda after thirty years, with the announcement that not only did she have a son Jeremy but that Bardolph was the father. Grace then tells Jo she has a half brother and Jo struggles to come to terms with this revelation. Grace angrily confronts Bardy, who says he was ashamed and perhaps they could talk about it now.
The second half starts two days later with Ruth trying to explain to her sister that it was her fault and that Bardolph wasn’t to blame for not telling his wife about the indiscretion. Sarah explains to Jo that she has decided she wasn’t ready to take up the position and further confesses that she had terminated a pregnancy after the affair but her husband thought it was his baby.
Jo then finds Grace and tells her that she has asked Ruth to stay for the sisters to sort things out. Grace further tells Sarah and Jo that she lost a baby boy. Gradually Grace, Sarah and Jo come to terms with things and then the scene moves down to the stream where Bardolph’s body was found. There he reappears to Grace and they talk about his love for god and being trapped in the faith.
Grace and Ruth finally make up and the play ends a few months later with the obviously pregnant Sarah in cassock ensconced in the vicarage. Grace has popped around to visit her old house. She has one final encounter with Bardolph and they make up. Jo and Ruth then turn up to say they are off to meet Jeremy.
The set designer Jan Greenough and construction team are to be congratulated with a greenhouse and a little area constructed to hold water that passed as the stream. The live shrubbery and plants added to the effect of this being an English garden. The staging of the mower moving by itself was a clever effect and one that must have needed careful consideration.
Lighting (Emma Christmas) and sound (Lauren Flynn) designs worked well to differentiate the various scenes and moods of the play.
Paul Ackroyd portrayed Bardolph with the ease of someone totally immersed in his role. His chemistry with Grace (Nikiki Packham) was at times tangible. For Nikki, taking on a role made famous by Penelope Keith might have daunted some actors, she certainly demonstrated a whole range of feelings to her husband on how much she loved him, the coolness of their relationship and the difficult relationship with her sister. She also had to deliver a lot of telling lines that the audience responded to wholeheartedly.
Ruth, played by Ann Ashenden, portrayed the sister whose relationship with her sister and late brother in law was sparky and sincere. The scenes between the two of them worked well. Jo, played by Lucy Camacho was clearly supportive to both her mother and to Sarah as well as coming to terms with her discoveries of there being a half brother and baby brother she had not been told about. Sarah played by Zoe Farrow again held the role of an incumbent with her own inner turmoil for the audience to see.
The playwright puts pen to paper but it is the actors who are directed that bring it to life or in this case partly after life. Director Mike Darbon needed to make use of the whole of the stage area for the various scenes such as the stream and the moving lawn mower. The small cast were a perfect fit for their roles and carried out their scenes, that in places had the audience laughing loudly.
This was a play that gave all those who came to see it a positive night’s entertainment, which was surely what those involved in its creation would want it to be.