The term turf war assumes a literal meaning in The Flowerbed, Michael Keegan-Dolan's second piece of narrative dance theatre to transfer from Dublin to London. Last year, his Irish-based company, Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, was a word-of-mouth hit at the Barbican Pit with his rugged rewrite of Giselle. The Flowerbed is his take on the Romeo and Juliet story, though it couldn't be further from the world of Renaissance Verona. Keegan-Dolan's un-named characters play out their family feud in the adjoining back gardens of their suburban homes. Their gripe is plain old class conflict, their weaponry of choice, a border fork and shears.
From the opening moments, Philip Feeney's score - all white noise and minimal piano - creates and strings out a murderous tension worthy of film noir. Behind identical Barratt Homes very different families lurk - both dysfunctional, both poised at the brink of violent fury, both harbouring a lonely, disengaged teen. The Montague clan trim their grass with nail scissors, save all physical affection for their lawnmower, and buy cleaning products by the trolley-load. The Capulet equivalents drop fag ends, chuck cans, watch telly in the garden, and have sex in front of the window.
So far, so obvious, and the best comedy comes not from these grotesque habits per se so much as the physical conviction of the performers. Tight-lipped Esther Balfe is a whirlwind of houseproud outrage, as grim in pursuit of a Pilates-perfect body as in her belief in the efficacy of air-freshener outdoors. As her anally retentive husband, Michael M Dolan makes an art form of handling garden implements, at one point partnering his precious lawnmower in a balletic pas de deux. The grossness of them next door is rendered comic by sheer rude energy. As the Tybalt character, shaven-headed Milos Galko builds up to acts of violent thuggery by snorting like a steam engine, then letting out a roar. Neil Paris as the Capulet father deserves a medal for chain-smoking, and it was a stroke of genius to cast his missus as a man in drag. Vladislav Soltys's gymnastic sunbathing stint, complete with bikini, chest hair and dark brown sun lotion, squirted and slathered like ketchup, is the funniest and most revolting thing in the show.
So abundant is the comedy that Keegan-Dolan could have riffed on his themes for hours. But there is a tight discipline at work that keeps tragedy in view. Maybe tragedy is too strong a word for it. He establishes the teens' love bond, very purely and beautifully on a garden swing, then slashes and burns in a brilliantly chaotic ending. Blood-loss, barbiturates, ingested grass cuttings and arson combine to litter the stage with corpses. It's not Romeo and Juliet as we know it, but what it says about the futility of civil strife is the same.Reuse content