Nineteen Gardens at Hampstead Theatre | Review

Nineteen Gardens is a beautifully written play by Magdalena Miecznicka, delighting in the use of the English language. It is witty and moving, and gradually draws the audience into the characters’ webs of intrigue.

Olivia Le Andersen and David Sturzaker in Nineteen Gardens. Credit The Other Richard.
Olivia Le Andersen and David Sturzaker in Nineteen Gardens. Credit The Other Richard.

Nearly two years after the end of their affair, John (David Sturzaker) and Aga (Danish actor Olivia Le Andersen) meet once more. Each has filled the void left by the other: he has withdrawn into his world of wealth and privilege. (JOHN: “£500,000 – it would take me two months to make that amount”) She has found herself working as a chambermaid to support her family. (AGA: “Do I take the tube and spend £3.30 or do I take the bus and save £1.80 but risk being late?”) It is evident that the spark between them is still there. But both have their own agendas, all is not as it seems and we spend the play empathising with one, then the other, in a lyrical human comedy that is seductive, enigmatic and explosive.

Miecznicka says that she likes playwrights who “take us out of pure imitation of how people talk and behave into the poetic, metaphysical, surreal…sometimes the characters don’t say the things they mean…. at other times say what they mean more honestly than real people ever would”. The end result is very involving!

Sturzaker appears very relaxed in their role, even when he is being ‘wound up‘ by his former mistress, but all the time we find ourselves asking if he is as really ‘laid back’ as he appears – surely he cannot be in control as much as he would like us to think, especially when he continually side-steps giving the answers to Aga that she is looking for. Can he be as much of a cad as he appears…? This is a totally believable portrayal by an actor who fully understands what the playwright wants – and it works.

Le Andersen is almost equally effective in her role, continually wanting something from her ‘ex’, and oh so nearly occasionally seeming almost to get it… before it slips away. The two work well together and it is easy to believe that they truly exist… are like people we actually know. It is a shame that Le Andersen’s diction is sometimes not as clear as it needs to be.

In a programme note, the playwright tells us that in her native Poland, ‘set design is more symbolic’, less realistic than in the UK. Sarah Beaton has responded to this by designing a simple white ‘box’ style set, which focuses the audience’s attention on the actors and two white chairs which are the only set decoration. Simplicity also means that the play is allowed to flow in director Alice Hamilton’s intelligent staging, even if, especially in the first act, it seems rather static as the two protagonists seem to be sitting all the time – it could almost be a radio play.

Effective lighting is by Jamie Platt and Max Pappenheim has designed a collage of the song ‘Plaisir d’Amour’ in various different versions to subtly underscore and link the proceedings.

This is one of those rare plays that one wishes was longer than its sixty-minute running time as there must be much more to learn about both John and Aga and their relationship after this play ends…

Highly recommended – a sequel, please?

4 stars

Review by John Groves

Nearly two years after the end of their affair, John and Aga meet once more. Each has filled the void left by the other: he has withdrawn into his world of wealth and privilege; she has found herself working as a chambermaid to support her family. Both recognise that the spark between them is still there. Will they rekindle what they had, or is an altogether darker game about to be played out…?

Cast
AGA – OLIVIA LE ANDERSEN
JOHN – DAVID STURZAKER

Artistic Team
WRITER – MAGDALENA MIECZNICKA
DIRECTOR – ALICE HAMILTON
DESIGNER – SARAH BEATON
LIGHTING – JAMIE PLATT
SOUND – MAX PAPPENHEIM

HAMPSTEAD DOWNSTAIRS / CELIA ATKIN PRESENT
NINETEEN GARDENS
BY MAGDALENA MIECZNICKA
DIRECTED BY ALICE HAMILTON
3 NOV – 9 DEC 2023
https://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/

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