After its 1957 premiere, Robert Bolt’s Flowering Cherry, revived for the first time by the Finborough Theatre, was compared, even dismissed, as being the British Death of a Salesman (1949). If Miller’s earlier play is about the American Dream, then Bolt takes on the British Dream. Which is what, exactly? Well exactly.
The play follows the suburban Cherry family from early spring, 1957, to slightly later spring, 1957. Mr. Cherry, Jim – comprising bluster, bluff and gin-spiked scrumpy – is an unhappy insurance salesman who dreams, or says he dreams, of moving back to his childhood Somerset and farming 15 acres of orchard. Cherry is husband to the despairing, downtrodden Isobel and together they are parents to T.S. Eliot-touting Tom and less-successful-than-she-appears Judy, though only Isobel is charged with the children’s successes and failings. Through the arrival of several outsiders, most importantly a seed salesman who reveals that Cherry has been lying about owning his imaginary orchard, the play tracks the moment at which the family could blossom into something more. But when Cherry is presented, or, as he sees it, confronted with the possibility of making his dream a reality – i.e. selling up and buying the plot of land with the wide frontage that he harps on about – he filibusters. So what was the dream for? This is a family who cannot work out how to reconcile dreams with reality without lying.
Benjamin Whitrow’s slick production brilliantly details how and when the trivial trials and tribulations of family life build to breaking point. The dinner that Judy’s friend from design college, Carol, turns up for seems to be that crisis point. Carol is illuminatingly described in Bolt’s stage directions as ‘one of those people who wins raffles’ and Phoebe Sparrow adopts this intangible air exactly. Existing outside of the usual constraints of life – she doesn’t keep time or carry money – Carol acts as a catalyst, forcing the family to show off the best versions of themselves. Unsurprisingly, their flaws are exaggerated in the process. What could be called a predictable play is undeniably well wrought; though perhaps overwrought in places.
The crescendo of the dinner, which closes Act One and outperforms the end of the production, sees son and father pretentiously competing to recite literary passages in order to impress Carol. Tom opts for Eliot’s The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock and Cherry for the prologue to Henry V. Both are revealing choices. Prufrock, a poem concerned with self-analysis and literary pretension, talks of talk. And talk of talk litters the play. Earlier on, Isobel berates her son for saying he’ll get the post, but then letting her do it: “Don’t say, ‘I’ll get it’ and then sit there reading T.S. Eliot.” It is the discrepancy between what is said and what is done that irritates Isobel. She is worried that Tom will turn into his father, with his promises of Somerset and of turning over new leaves. Understandably so, as Cherry is all talk and no action. His chosen passage, which sets up the action of Henry V, invokes the power of the theatre and asks the audience to use their imagination to transform the stage into a battlefield. Indeed, Cherry knows how to create worlds, to fabricate fantasties. It’s the bit, or rather the action, that follows that he struggles with. The tulips being trained on the trellis outside take on an obvious significance.
But in Liam McKenna’s incarnation, Cherry is so successfully red-faced and bullish that his moments of supposed tenderness make me slightly squeamish. As such, his demise falls on unsympathetic ears; he is sad but not pitiable. Overall, the cast excels; most notably Catherine Kanter as the stoic Isobel and James Musgrave’s artfully unfolded portrayal of Tom’s transformation into adulthood. They also happen to be the only family members who figure out how to escape Alex Marker’s beautifully designed naturalistic (read: no imagination required) set. Cherry however, who claims to be a creation of his circumstances but is revealed to create those circumstances, is stuck on stage. And his daughter, who both despises and most resembles him, and who lies about winning a studentship and escaping home, discovers that the power of imagination isn’t as powerful as all that. The Cherrys’ life isn’t a sad reality, it’s a sad construction.