Being a part of a family unit can be particularly enjoyable, but are there periods when a family do come together as a whole to celebrate someone’s birthday cause skeletons to come out of the closet? The Park Theatre’s current production of Andrew Keatley’s newest offering, ‘The Gathered Leaves’ was an intellectually stimulating and touchingly warm production on such matters with tremendous performances all the way through.
‘The Gathered Leaves’ is set in the country home of the affluent Pennington family where at first we are transported to 1964 to Young Giles Pennington (Hamish Brewster) and his autistic brother, Young Samuel Pennington (Oliver Buckner) who are acting out a scene from the third Doctor Who story, ‘The Edge of Destruction’. Samuel is peeved that Giles is not conveying his lines correctly and as such we will see how this commences a moving relationship that will last forever. Thirty three years later, in 1997, the Pennington clan all come together to celebrate the birthday of head of the family, William (Clive Francis). His wife, Olivia is busy ensuring that the festivities are going to plan where Samuel has spent a whole week baking and decorating a cake that’s modelled on their family home. Giles arrives with his wife, Sophie (Anna Wilson-Jones), and their two young adult children, Simon (Tom Hanson) and Alice (Katie Scarfe) and it seems that Giles and Sophie’s marriage is “on the rocks” where they sleep in different beds. When Giles and Samuel’s sister, Emily (Georgina Beedle) who they have not seen for some time has returned with her daughter, Aurelia (Amber James) for her father’s birthday it appears there is a reason for this. The reason of her absence is due to the fact that William isolated her out of the family because of Emily’s pregnancy to a black man and over the course of the production we learn that Olivia has been visiting her daughter and granddaughter in secret for years. When Emily plays a tune on the piano she played as a child, it enables the family to come together in a positive way and the point where they’re playing board games it allows us to see how educated Samuel is as he remembers a quote from a Charles Dickens novel from memory. Another skeleton in William’s closet is his past infidelity and when he tells Giles, Giles is so furious that he walks out of the living room when William opens his presents as he cannot look at his father. Alternatively, William shows his sensitive, parental and soft side when he has a few alcoholic drinks with Aurelia and when he wants to see the scene of Doctor Who after an altercation with Giles about how he does not take much notice of Samuel’s brilliant and creative mind. At the finale, Giles is still angry with his father, nonetheless he does compliment Giles in his role as a brother as it’s quite hard having a brother with autism. This is increasingly poignant as I have autism and my younger brother is a spectacular one indeed who helps me out. Keatley’s narrative is excellent as the formation of a play about a well to do family who have the same challenges and problems as those in the middle classes and working classes allows all classes to identify and unify together.
One found the performances by the company of, ‘The Gathered Leaves’ to be extremely well portrayed through impeccable diction and movement execution that is so inspiring. Jane Asher is impressive as matriarch, Olivia; especially how amazing she is a doting mother, wife and grandmother and when Samuel injures himself with tea she is on hand to help him no matter what. Alexander Hanson is exhilarating as older sibling, Giles; specifically when he frequently argues with Sophie about his brother’s condition where Sophie thinks he has been staring at her in the shower, but this is not the case. Neil Sampson is awesome as autistic, Samuel; primarily how truthful and representative he depicts an autistic adult and his impression as William Hartnell’s Doctor is nothing more than funny. Well done I must add.
Anthony Eden’s direction is fabulous here as he has created and presented an engaging and enlightening piece of theatrical work about how a family such as the Pennington’s do have both ups and downs, as well as, the cute relationship between Giles and Samuel. James Perkin’s design is simple yet effective as I was immediately taken into the Pennington environment in the 1990’s, plus with miraculous lighting by Paul Colwell and Stella Cheung and beautiful sound by Harry Johnson it’s a delightful design network and collaboration that’s unmatched. Overall, the experience of, ‘The Gathered Leaves’ to be a dazzling one indeed and one must conclude by commenting on slick stage management by Amy Clement and Valeria Bettini.