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The Gathered Leaves (Park Theatre)

Antony Eden directs the world premiere of Andrew Keatley's second play

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Nick Sampson, Alexander Hanson & Tom Hanson
© Mark Douet

A country house, a 75th birthday, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, a black sheep and her baby lamb returning to the fold, autism, not much fun and lots of games… severe culture shock at the Finsbury Park redoubt, which (in association with Dead Letter Perfect) is hosting actor Andrew Keatley's second play and revisiting the dear departed days of family domestic drama before drugs and child abuse.

Well, almost. The year is 1997, on the brink of the Tony Blair election triumph though, like so much else in the play, that thread's left hanging almost as soon as it's spun. And there's a tantalising prologue of two boys in 1964 rehearsing an extract from Doctor Who: The Edge of Destruction. What's that all about, then?

The boys are brothers, gathered with the rest of the family at their father's party for three days over Easter. The elder is Samuel who, in a devastatingly good performance by basso-voiced NT stalwart Nick Sampson, is an amiable, overgrown autistic middle-aged baby Samuel protected from the rest by his worldlier brother Giles, a doctor, played with characteristic deftness by Alexander Hanson.

The brothers have baked a huge cake, in the shape of the house itself, while Samuel suddenly declares he would very much like some jam tarts; which is oddly appropriate as cake-maker-in-chief, Jane Asher, is on hand as their mother, Olivia, holding the ring while Clive Francis as old father William Pennington, in the early stages of dementia, harrumphs and harangues from his armchair.

While Antony Eden's production is intermittently engaging and enjoyable, characters shift in and out of focus with alarming rapidity, despite the dramatic glue of certain "events" – the return of daughter Alice (Katie Scarfe) with her mixed-race teenage girl (Amber James), the fate of the old family piano, the irreparable fissures in one of the marriages, the climactic ritual of present-giving which results in Giles exploding at his family over Samuel.

Most new plays tend towards the coded and elliptical, while Keatley rambles in the margins of domestic life, relishes the routine and familiar, challenges the status quo by setting out to expose it. With severe editing and tightening, he might well have a success on his hands, but too many scenes peter out inconclusively, with nowhere to go, having made their point much earlier

As befits a family drama, Clive Francis really does now look as though he's morphing into his own departed dad, Raymond Francis. And Hanson senior has his own son, Tom Hanson, flopping around as his onstage, recalcitrant brat, while his onstage mother, Asher senior, has her real-life daughter, Katie Scarfe, frowning anxiously more or less throughout as Giles and Samuel's black sheep sister with a penchant for glutinous chord progressions on the piano.

The Gathered Leaves runs at Park Theatre until 15 August. Click here for more information and to book tickets.

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