This production contains a spider plant. In case any botany geeks want to have a fight about what I mean by that, then I’m talking about Chlorophytum comosum or rather, those droopy stripy-leaved plants that at one point seemed to be everywhere, and now have dropped out of fashion. Nestled in amongst the assorted vintage knickknacks of Colin O’Hara’s set design, however, the bad hair day plant looks right at home. This is because, like aspidistras, the spider plant’s natural habitat has come to be a certain over-stuffed English sitting room. In fact, I reckon that if a spider plant found itself next to a piece of wood that wasn’t already coated in varnish, it would spontaneously die from shock. Wikipedia says they’re native to southern Africa, but in the Old Anatomy Hall of Summerhall with its creaky wooden benches and the old-timey props, it looks as natural as a bluebell in woodland.
The thing that always fascinated me about spider plants is the little baby plants they make on the end of each branch (apologies again for the lack of ‘proper’ terminology). This one big plant that makes all these baby plants that can be gently popped onto the soil themselves. And Sam Rowe’s Denton & Me is, as it happens, rather similar to a spider plant.
Firstly, the format of the overall piece is constructed from a series of other tiny, interlinking stories. Some of these are like fully-fledged plants in their own right, whereas others float off a little too easily like thin white petals in a strong wind. Secondly, the relationship between Rowe and Denton Welch – author of the journals Rowe presents extracts from – is like that between plants and plantlets (apparently the technical term for ‘baby plants’). Both are recognisable entities, but there’s a strange thin thread forging a connection between them.
Welch’s diaries begin in 1942. They chronicle his days spent in the Kentish countryside, including times with Eric Oliver, the man he loved. Rowe recites passages recalling Welch’s frustration with being frequently unwell and confined to bed; the disintegration of an otherwise charming afternoon with Oliver into a stroppy parting of ways, and – like all recounts of English life of a particularly age – the frequent mentioning of endless teas, ales and suppers. In fact, Alan Bennett in his essay on Welch opens with a quote about banqueting (along with commenting on the lack of bike locks in rural Kent circa 1940):
“I have been eating my lunch in the fields nearby (Ryvita, cheese, apricot jam, chocolate bar of squashed dried fruits, coffee) sitting on my coral air-cushion, given me by May, reading for the forth or fifth time an outline of the Brontë sisters’ lives.”
The episodes from Welch’s life – picnicking and otherwise – are interspersed with autobiographical tales from Rowe’s life in modern London. The most overt connection between the two is being young gay men in search of a partner, along with continual flickering suggestions of alienation or loneliness. What makes this play more compelling than these very basic shared features is that the link between Rowe and Welch was actually a forced one. Rowe was given the diaries of Welch by a family friend. In amongst the reduced-price cake and little bits of bickering post-ballet watching, Rowe lets slip to the older man that he is suffering from a lack of belonging. Instead of offering out the usual platitudes, his friend simply asks if he has found the time yet to read his Christmas present, The Journals of Denton Welch.
Despite his at times ingratiating manner, Rowe’s friend displays wisdom. In his choice of Christmas gift he is making the point that Rowe is not alone. Not through the immediate friendship of the gift-giver, but through the runners, thin as a spider’s leg, that link us to numerous other human beings throughout history. The point is that other people have struggled with being outcasts and with trying to find love. Other people have wandered the streets of South East England weighed down with ennui, and more will do so in the future.
Discovering the words of another person that shows us we’re not alone in feeling the way we do really is the chicken soup of the soul. And, what’s more, it’s often more comforting than even a rest on the best of coral air cushions.