Neighbourly? No way

“The Flowerbed”
Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre
Barbican Pit Theatre
June 20 – July 8
, 2006

by John Percival
copyright ©2006 by John Percival

There is a sense of antagonism to come before a single character sets foot on stage in Michael Keegan-Dolan’s “The Flowerbed”. We see two houses, unrealistically depicted in blue flat boards; the one on our right is neat and trim, the other has its missing door and window taped over. The lawn in front of them likewise reveals more care on one side. Yet it’s the smarter house where a boy climbs on the roof and throws paper aeroplanes at the audience, so we ought to guess this is not going to be just goodies versus baddies. It may be the squatters breaking into the empty house who most obviously act rough, but it’s the smug prig who lies face down on his lawn after trimming it with mowing machine, then with shears and even nail scissors, and makes love to it à la Nijinsky faun. And his wife’s obsession with fitness is too aggressively pursued, while the cigarette their son naughtily smokes must, judging by their sniffing of it, contain illicit substances. Whereas it’s the roughs who actually plant a flowerbed, even if they do precipitate trouble by digging it across the boundary. The gardening obsession continues right to the end when two rivals lie dead – both stabbed with garden tools.

A derivation from “Romeo and Juliet” has been much remarked in publicity and reviews, and you can certainly relate the characters to Shakespeare’s principals. It’s even justified from the play that the youngsters from conflicting sides aren’t just sweethearts but start having sex as quickly as they can — although doing it seated on a garden swing is an original touch. Their preliminary duet is about as near as we get to straight dancing, but even then the attraction is performance rather than steps. In fact I would define “The Flower Bed” as a play for dancers rather than traditional dance theatre — and none the worse for that; it seemed to me thoroughly entertaining, and although the action is both mean and bleak, it’s also often very funny; you don’t often hear so much laughter at a dance show.

Michael Keegan-Dolan is Irish and his Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre is based there; it began in Cork but now works at Shawbrook in the midlands of Ireland. Another of their shows came to London early last year, with a weird plot remotely based on “Giselle”. That was highly praised and Keegan-Dolan apparently regards it as his breakthrough piece, but I have to say that I thought it over-rated. What he has brought this time is a complete reworking of an earlier production from 2000, and to my mind far more cogent and vivid than the “Giselle”. His composer is Philip Feeney, whom he first met at London’s Central School of Ballet; Feeney has long specialised in writing music for ballet (at least eight companies in Britain, Europe and America); what he has achieved this time seems wonderfully apt in shape and feeling to support the action. Also helpful are Merle Hensel’s tough, simple designs, which keep the structure of an earlier version by Rodney Grant.

Keegan-Dolan gives a lot of credit to his cast. Only one dancer remains from the former version, Michael M. Dolan as the smirking prig who loves his lawn. Esther Balfe now makes a perfect match as his smug wife, and their son is played by Rachel Poirier; having a girl in the role (it wasn’t so originally) brings a gentle precocity to the character. Further trans-sexual casting brings Vladislav Benito Sóltis as the blue-chinned, hairy-chested mum next door. In 2000 that role was doubled with her nasty husband, now vividly played by Neil Paris. Milos Galko as the other nasty provides a Shakespearean reminder that “one may smile and smile and be a villain”, while Daphne Strothmann neatly embodies the put-upon girl. Altogether they make as fine a cast as could be wished.

Volume 4, No. 25
June 26, 2006

copyright ©2006 John Percival



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