Watford Palace Theatre
Opened 20 April, 2010

Playwright Gary Owen's programme note acknowledges inspirations ranging from To Kill A Mockingbird to programmes of restorative justice, but at its core is a more basic archetype: the buddy story. This is a play about two radically different personalities thrown together by force of circumstance, who at first infuriate each other but gradually learn greater wisdom and humanity from one another. In this case, Mrs Reynolds is a cantankerous woman in late middle age and Jay, the ruffian, has been ordered by the court to make good the damage done to her garden when he broke in; the single session of penance becomes several, the basis of their meetings shifts to a voluntary one and Jay becomes committed to helping Mrs Reynolds make their city street a less ugly place by painting and repainting a graffiti-ridden wall, planting and replanting items of greenery.
Brigid Larmour's production strives a little too hard to establish the stereotypes before modifying them: in the initial scenes Trudie Goodwin's Mrs Reynolds is too shrill, Morgan Watkins' Jay too deviously menacing and even the court official a caricature of well-meaning gormlessness. However, the portrayals settle down into a more reasonable register, with Watkins especially dealing well with the range of material given him, from the take of childhood suffering to his constant vein of street sardonicism. The final two scenes of Act One put Jay through the wringer, and demonstrate Owen's awareness that the affirmation and even sentimentality of the play need to be regularly tempered with not just quirkiness but genuine unpleasantness from one or other of the antagonists. Goodwin, for her part, enjoys her liberation from the near-saintliness of Sergeant June Ackland, the character she played in TV's The Bill for over 20 years.
The classic buddy tale of course ends with one partner or other dying, or at least beginning the process of dying if they hadn't already been about it when the action began. This is no exception, though in a nod to discretion I shan't reveal who undergoes what or how. By this stage, naturally, the motif of the horticultural season cycle has been established, and we know that renewal of one sort or another will inevitably occur. This is not prime Owen, but it fills a couple of hours effectively enough.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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