HOW TO BUILD A BETTER TULIP at the Upstairs at the Gatehouse
“Only the performance by Beth Burrows holds the whole thing together“
To set the theme for the evening, the song Tulips from Amsterdam provides the somewhat tongue-in-cheek auditorium entry music, followed by other songs evoking buttercups and roses. Perhaps there is no available pop song concerning petunias as that would have been the other relevant flowery reference for this amiable comedy written and directed by Mark R Giesser.
A minimalist drab-coloured set (Designer Mollie Cheek) predominantly represents a greenhouse at the University of South Holland (Lincolnshire) where plant genetics are being researched. Faded tulip designs on delft tiles give a hint of historic Dutchness. A broadsheet notice on the wall informs us that a monetary prize of ten thousand guilders should be awarded to any person who succeeds in the breeding of a perfect Black Tulip. And therein lies the basis of the plot, loosely based on Alexandre Dumas’s novel The Black Tulip, and making reference to the historical tulipomania of seventeenth century Holland.
Splashes of colour appear as university researcher Audrey Braddock (Jill Greenacre) in red corduroys and amanuensis Sheila Crouch (Bryony Tebbutt) with yellow bobblehat, frenetically enter. Tebbutt displays youthful exuberance in a deliberate and delightfully quirky manner. Greenacre’s speedy and breathy delivery means some dialogue is sadly lost in this opening scene. We are introduced to Braddock’s daughter Perci (Beth Burrows) whose latest boyfriend is petunia researcher Adrian Vanderpol (Christopher Killik) and then things turn strange. Alone in her room, Braddock begins to talk to a voice in her head – Carolus Hoofdorn (Richard Lynson) a seventeenth century Dutch tulip enthusiast. Vanderpol too communicates with the voice in his head – Cornelia Vanderpol (Tebbutt again). And when everyone appears on stage together, the two Dutch puritans are able to talk to each other too. Nice period costumes here (Giulia Scrimieri) for the historical Dutch, less convincing accents.
As it appears, Braddock and Vanderpol – driven by the two ghosts in their heads – are covertly endeavouring to create the elusive black tulip, espionage is undertaken, Perci is involved with the FBI and honey-research, Carolus sporadically breaks out into folksong, Cornelia inexplicably cannot abide the songs of Elvis, Vanderpol is arrested for environmental terrorism and tulip bulbs are identified as the next potential WMD. It’s all rather a muddle.
The character of Sergeant Ellsworth, managed stolidly enough by Lynson, sums up the difficulty of the play; he is given neither the insight of a probing detective nor the comedic possibilities of a bumbling village Plod. Only the performance by Beth Burrows holds the whole thing together. With energy and fine expression she appears to understand and believe in all the shenanigans and provides a central performance to savour.
Perci tells us at one point, “It all sounds more complicated than it needs to be” and I could almost hear the audience reply, “hear hear”.
Reviewed on 8th November 2022
by Philip Money
Photography by Flavia Fraser-Cannon
Previously reviewed at this venue: