Clare, the Rex Begonia at the centre of Kit Brookman’s new play, The Plant, is the most fascinating flora to take root on stage since Audrey II terrorised the humans of the cult 1980s musical Little Shop of Horrors.
Okay, Clare isn’t quite the same kind of magical sentient vegetable as Audrey II — and she doesn’t have a taste for human flesh — but the role Clare plays in the emotional life of the play’s central character is every bit as intriguing.
Sue (Sandy Gore) has spent the last three years grieving the unexpected death of her husband. The loss has left her totally unanchored and numb, and her three adult children aren’t much help. They really don’t know how to help their mother, and they certainly don’t spend enough time listening to work it out.
So Sue, in the pit of a deep depression, directs her energy and compassion towards her modest new house plant, who she eventually names Clare. Unlike Sue’s kids, Clare responds to her nurturing and, most importantly, Clare really listens.
Then one day Sue’s three children come over for a lunch to discover a woman named Clare, dressed entirely in green foliage, living at home with their mother. Although it’s clear that Sue is now coping with various parts of her life much better, the children are all suspicious of Clare and disapprove of the friendship.
The Plant is a bittersweet, and frequently laugh-out-loud funny play about families, grief and loneliness. There’s a degree of stylistic adventure with its use of dialogue and monologues — and the premise is entirely original — but the drama at its core is entirely relatable and driven by the warmth of real relationships. Once you make the requisite leaps of imagination to accept the more fantastical elements of the script, it’s an entirely plausible and confidently executed piece of family drama.
Director Elsie Edgerton-Till has imbued the play with plenty of action, deftly handling the tonal and location shifts atop designer Isabel Hudson’s simple but attractive green carpeted platform. Daryl Wallis’s sound design and Benjamin Brockman’s lighting give all the necessary clues as to each setting of this play’s world, sitting somewhere between the real and the surreal.
Sandy Gore is perfectly cast as Sue, delivering a subtly devastating portrait of this woman on the verge. It’s a quiet performance, but of the magical kind that invites you to lean forward and listen in ways that her children never would.
Helen Dallimore plays the eldest daughter Erin, has enough stress from her burgeoning publishing career and raising young children without concerning herself with her mother, who just seems to be slowly shutting down.
Garth Holcombe plays Daniel, who is similarly busy but finds himself returning to his mother’s side when his relationship breaks down, and Briallen Clarke plays the misfit wild child Naomi, who can’t get anything in her life together and manages to literally fall asleep when Sue tries to reveal her pain.
The sibling dynamic between all three actors is perfect: you can feel the history between them and each sibling is well settled into their role in that family unit. And the way they’ve chosen to now view their mother — as a rather useless and pointless figure — is perfectly established.
Michelle Lim Davidson brings a heightened, slightly out-of-this-world playing style to Clare, which gives her the requisite degree of mystery. And she looks entirely at home in a bright pink wig and a costume made of plants, which is no easy feat.
It’s wonderful that The Plant has found a place on stage. It’s a small and unassuming work, and could’ve easily been overlooked in a theatre company’s search for more bold and topical material. But it’s full of soul and the most assured of the plays I’ve seen from Brookman to date. I only wish more theatre had the ability to touch hearts like this play.
Featured image by Prudence Upton