Potting sheds, greenhouses – they’ve always been places to hide things, whether its rusty tools, spilling compost bags, or plants/people too fragile to survive the world outside.
Undeb Theatre’s one-man show shelters in a garden shed, perching an audience of two on upturned flowerpots. Secrets spill with the soil as a middle-aged man sows seeds and narrates their transformation of the muddy patch outside into a haunted paradise.
Owain’s been having a bad time of things, but doesn’t expect us to care. With a depressive detachment, he talks about his office job in the map department, and hints at the faintly felt presences of his wife Anna and the children indoors. Rootling around under the sink at work, he unearths and obeys Gardening: for the Unfulfilled and Alienated, a heavily bound tome that references a whole school of faintly inspirational, self-help hobby books. Brad Birch’s text beautifully observes the agonies and pleasures of starting to garden; the razed earth stage, where the nettled wilderness is replaced by an oddly satisfying canvas of bare earth and cat poo, the inexplicable failures, and Trevor next door’s weedily pernicious rivalry.
There’s a risk that sharing tea in a pine-scented nook could feel twee, but the gorgeous prettiness of Madeleine Girling’s design wilts into shadows under Hannah Bannister’s intense direction. Yes, the show’s about gardening, but not in a turn-up-with-a-spotty-seedling sort of way; the gardeners’ questions in its half-hour time slot are more about when a hobby tips into obsession, when dedication becomes dangerous. Owain’s unfulfillment might lift as his garden flourishes, but his alienation only grows. Richard Corgan’s performance darkens to rambling menace as he realises that the pressures of putting on a good show can be even more poisonous than a drip-feed of Roundup.
A lot of this play’s charm comes from its smallness, carefully exploited by Owain’s constant succession of precise movements. Pouring tea, slamming the shed door on an expedition to weed Pleasance Courtyard, pressing the dibber into tiny plug pots to plant runner beans; these mundane moments gain an incredible power when they’re splattering, ruffling, spilling onto a tiny audience.
The same smallness makes it possible to feel Owain’s depression as a presence, a noxious atmosphere that would only airily disperse in a bigger space. The play’s broader supernatural resonances could benefit from more room or time to grow, to blossom into full-blown folk horror. As an intense intrusion on one man’s solitude, though, this invigorating tonic that needs no dilution.