Held in an underground corner of Summerhall, Cumbernauld Theatre‘s The Gardener is a play about growing old that packs an emotional punch far greater than its subtle delivery would initially have you believe.
After being ushered down steps, through a long corridor and into a bare room, light is provided simply by three domestic lamps. A single row of seating is organised around a coffee table. Set within a care home for older people, the protagonist Frank (a 74 year-old resident, brilliantly played by Crawford Logan) emerges into the room in his cardigan and corduroy trousers to deliver a talk on amateur gardening.
Whilst reading aloud horticultural facts about soil, planting arrangements and watering techniques, nostalgic recollections of his life are sparked within Frank. Detailed descriptions of his father’s love of growing roses, the meeting of his wife and the purchase of their first home with a large garden provide dialogue so naturally paced and delivered that the audience quickly feel they know this warm-natured old man.
Memories are interwoven with humorous musings about life as a resident in “Pine Grove Villas” – a “retirement community” lacking a single pine tree. Regular interruptions are made by Eilidh, a care assistant, that snap Frank out of his reminiscing and provide a strong sense of the realities of life in such a place. Medication time, tea breaks and background TV noise are just some of the cleverly-timed distractions that portray the unintentional stifling of independence that older people experience within institutional settings. Sitting in cheap plastic chairs, each audience member becomes part of the fabric of the room, silently forced to enter the psyche of a fellow care-home resident, locked in empathy with Frank’s character.
Towards the end of the piece, memories of the illness and eventual death of his wife reveal Frank’s reasons for his current situation. The range of issues connected to old-age hits home; loneliness, bereavement, isolation… the list goes on. Tears in eyes and lumps in throats spread throughout the audience like an unstoppable Mexican wave of emotion. Such attachment to a character and a story is rare in any art form, and is a testament to the quality of writing and acting on display in this play. Complex subject matters are handled with all the care and respect they deserve, whilst subtle touches of theatrical genius allow the audience to share an immersive, intimate experience.