Emily Garside’s debut plays lays down its rules in the very first scene. Taking place in the waiting room of an as-yet-undefined clinic, the audience watch as a very arrogant man flirts shamelessly with a very uninterested woman. The dialogue is sharp, zippy, funny. It’s a great introduction to the world in which Don’t Send Flowers exists, and to Garside’s writing. It’s quickly established that our three protagonists are grieving a death that is yet to happen. John, diagnosed with terminal cancer, has months left to live; brother Louis is struggling to hold it together; and Grace, herself grieving the loss of her father, is the woman caught between them.
As the story unravels and the love triangle plays out, Garside’s script starts to falter. Established character traits seem to fall by the wayside for the sake of the plot and, as a result, relationships also don’t get a chance to develop properly. Though it tries tackling some very serious and emotional subject matter that lack of resonance ends up leaving the play hollow, and it meanders along without really offering the punch it needs.
The sharpness of that first scene still appears in inconsistent bursts later on. Garside has a good knack for one-liners and dry quips, and having the actors jab at each other is fun to watch, but the script isn’t as strong in the emotional scenes. Instead, it feels worn and melodramatic, heightened by some of Ashley Cummings’ directorial choices. What Cummings does best is mine the humour from the text, giving the performers space to play with Garside’s words. At other points, however, his directorial vision seems to sit in stark contrast to the writer’s vision.
The script’s matter-of-fact attitude to discussing death and grief makes Don’t Send Flowers feel like a kitchen sink drama – to varying degrees of success, the intention is to portray these difficult moments with honesty and grit. Unfortunately, these scenes are spliced with those overly melodramatic montage sequences that feel like they’ve been lifted from various Hollywood movies. There are also several moments at the beginning of the play where the characters break the fourth wall, but it’s never really given any context and the device disappears without explanation.
Stuck in the middle of this struggle between writer and director are the actors who, under the circumstances, do a solid job. All three performers clearly relish the funnier scenes – Ffion King and James Scannell, in particular, excel here – but the lack of character development means that they can only do so much. Tom Lloyd-Kendall, as Louis, suffers most from this. He gives perhaps the best performance of the three, but for a character that far too often feels superfluous to the narrative.
Clock Tower are a company that prides itself on taking chances on new artists, and that’s to be commended. However, that roll of the dice hasn’t worked here because Don’t Send Flowers doesn’t hit the mark. There are flashes of good work in this two-act play, and both Garside and Cummings show promise, but it’s promise not fully realised.