[author-post-rating] (4/5 stars)

Gardening at Ed Fringe 2013, Undeb Theatre (courtesy Richard Davenport) 1

This melancholic piece crams an awful lot into its half hour slot. It is powerful and fascinating glimpse into the rather twisted psyche of one man, Owain, but at times it slightly overestimates how much ground it can cover. Performed in a tiny garden shed for only two people at a time, Owain (Richard Corgan) settles into his seat and starts to talk. He tells us that he feels sad and alone, despite being married with two children. He hates his job, he loathes his neighbour and he feels as though his life is empty and meaningless.

Through a bizarre (and not really explained) set of circumstances, Owain finds a book during his lunch hour, while looking for something to read to distract him from the grinding tedium of his administrative job. The book, Gardening: For the Unfulfilled and Alienated, is part gardening how-to and part self-help guide. It suggests, reasonably enough, that having something beautiful in your life will bring you joy, and that by creating and nurturing a garden Owain (or indeed any reader) might be able to start finding pleasure in life again. The metaphor works, and we hear how Owain started to blossom as his garden did.

It takes a darker turn which I won’t spoil, but suffice to say that gardening becomes the focal point of Owain’s life, and not always for the best. It’s beautifully written and performed. Brad Birch’s script pins down the natural patterns of speech incredibly well, and Hannah Banister’s direction is subtle and nuanced.

There are times, though, when the contract between audience and performer is unclear: Owain explains that there are some things that he would never tell anyone, so we assume we’re not really present in the shed. That’s fine, but then he offers us a cup of tea (which my fellow shed-dweller accepts), so we are there in the shed with him, for that moment at least. It’s a slightly wobbly premise which makes its repeated rhetorical questions confusing, but on the whole Birch’s script is strong enough to gloss over these inconsistencies. Corgan is an excellent performer; his Owain conveys deep turmoil and pain without ever sliding into melodrama or becoming ridiculous. Here, in his private refuge, amongst the flower pots, next to the lawn mower, smelling the comforting wet earth, Owain bares his soul, to potent effect.

In fact, I’d almost have preferred it if Gardening didn’t try to shoe-horn in more narrative. It’s close to perfect as a look inside someone’s head but parts of the plot feel under-developed and, frankly, unnecessary. It’s as though the company has tried to make this piece more than it is, and it’s just not necessary because it’s a gorgeous, fragile thing that doesn’t need to be anything more.

Gardening: For the Unfulfilled and Alienated is at the Pleasance Courtyard until 25 August, several times a day. For more information and tickets, visit the Edinburgh Fringe website.

Photo (c) Richard Davenport.