In our recent interview, Des Fleurs’ writer Gabrielle Silvestre talks about writing queer characters as a way for queer actors to better connect, something she says she was unable to do properly when playing straight roles at drama school. It’s a rather telling and interesting insight into where this play comes from and helps in adding an additional layer of meaning to what proves to be a well-crafted new play.
Des Fleurs takes place in the garden of the family home. Present day Judy (Harriet Whitbread) is struggling to come to terms with her family’s decision to move her to a care home. Her children (Naomi Hyatt-Golding and Nadav Burstein) are worried she can no longer cope alone since the death of her husband, and it is made worse by the clear signs of her early stages of dementia. This aspect is beautifully portrayed without ever needing to be directly spelled out. And whilst the present is happening around her, Judy’s memories of her younger life (Sophie Macdonald) come flooding back, which for the briefest of times included Georgia (Libby Boyd), the woman she truly loved and yet could never fully be with. As present-day Judy watches her younger self and Georgia in the garden we learn of their secret union and why it could never be fully realised.
Much credit must go to Whitbread as the older Judy, torn between the present and the past; the way she glazes over as these happy memories come flooding back is almost heart-breaking. Yet her love story is never allowed to have its happy ever after, as she feels unable to leave her husband for fear of the scandal it would cause and the risk to her family. It’s easy to forget that such a thing as two women raising children together would have been seen as so wrong not that long ago!
There’s much to admire in how the two timelines are played out in the same space. The direction, also by Silvestre, allows both to exist side by side without ever feeling as if they might trip over each other. Good use of the stage and space in front of it means that even with all seven-cast present at times it doesn’t feel crowded.
There is, though, still some work needed to take this play to the next level. Even knowing in advance about the dual timelines, I was initially left confused by who was who: it took a scene to connect that we were seeing the past through Judy’s memories. This maybe needs to be better signposted or it risks losing some of the audience before things have even started. And whilst the story is beautifully scripted, the ending feels just a little rushed – the convenient announcement of a letter that Judy never got to see feels a little contrived. However, the closing moment does add to the heartbreak of that unfulfilled love.
There is a lovely old-fashioned feel to Des Fleurs, in both look and style. Yet at the same time the writing still manages to feel modern as it explores dementia and queerness, themes that perhaps would not have been so easily addressed only a generation ago. It’s also rather nice to see more of a set than many shows staged at The Space. It’s amazing how a little greenery, a few plant pots and some creativity can turn that stage into a lovely garden.
Des Fleurs is another success for this excellent venue. There are small flaws but nothing that can’t get ironed out should the play return. But even now, it will certainly be a play that many people will connect to, for both its queer love story and its portrayal of someone slowly succumbing to the terrible curse of dementia.
Written and directed by: Gabrielle Silvestre
Produced by: Fury Entertainment
Note: This performance was watched via The Space’s On-demand service. The show has completed its current run, but is avaialble on to watch online until 12 November 2022. Further information here.