The Back to Ours festival aims to bring art to Hull’s outskirts, a lasting legacy of Hull 2017. It now brings this compact one-woman play about a female boxer and the woman she inspired, to a Hull’s William Gemmel pub, where the city’s fishing roots are right at the audience’s fingertips. The stage, forming a half-metaphorical ring, is erected for this performance in the back room of a pub where the house lights never fully go down and poignant moments are punctuated by the rattling sounds of drinks being poured. It’s not a conventional or ideal space for theatrical performance, but the room is packed with people of all ages and backgrounds. Delicate Flowers could not find a more receptive crowd.
In the community spirit of the festival, this performance opens with a dance prelude from local sixth form students. The routines are executed with mixed success to a medley of pop hits. The prelude sets a punching tone for the play and, perhaps more importantly, brings home what Delicate Flowers is truly about, an ordinary girl pursuing a dream.
The girl in this case is Karen, a boxer with one eye on the success of Hull-born champion, Barbara Butterick. She tells Butterick’s story in tandem with her own, matching her personal and professional struggles blow for blow with the real-life boxer. The stories are tied neatly together with the play’s tagline “Everybody needs a hero, right?”. It’s a bold concept, especially relying on the performance of a single actor, Amber Devine, to execute. If we do not believe in Karen, the whole play falls down. Tragically, I think this is precisely the case.
Mark Rees’ script is, in its best moments, electric. His engagement with the dialect is excellent and his feeling for setting exemplary. The local references definitely feel appropriate for this audience. Genuine laughs surface when the jokes are well-told. Sometimes though, Delicate Flowers feels more like storytelling than a play, action is not so much happening in front of us as it is being told to us. To a certain extent, this is the nature of the beast. A one-woman play is likely to contain a lot of exposition from a single actress. This I could have forgiven, had the story Karen been telling be as engaging as it should have been. The plot lacked narrative pull, there are no stakes to Karen’s story and so, as an audience, we feel we are being told her story rather than being involved in it with her.
That said, the story is told rather beautifully. Devine is stunning, perfectly encapsulating the “gobby” woman refusing to rely on anything but her own performance. While she is slightly at war with the acoustics of the room, losing some of the tone that could have given her vocal performance some much needed light and shade, she manages to produce a truly empathetic Karen. Throughout the show, Devine executes training drill upon training drill, athletically delivering pages of dialogue. As one audience member put it, “She’s tiring me out just watching her.” Keeley Lane’s staging allows Devine the freedom to really play within the ring and it shows.
Lane has directed the show with a light touch. It has a beautiful simplicity to it, accentuated by delicate changes in Matt Pilsworth’s lighting. This simplicity also occasionally sees the staging repeating itself, but many of these repeats became recurring motifs, such as the repeats of drills as Karen counts down reps. Delicate Flowers essentially fills its promise. It is an overtly feminist play attempting to demonstrate how one woman’s struggle can inspire another. The framing of the importance of visibility is spot on. What strikes me though, is that it is perhaps too spot on. At every turn, the play almost tells us what to think through Karen’s mouth, the effect being that she loses some of her humanity. She becomes a speaker spouting anecdotes that demonstrate the need for equality, rather than a human being. That said, the production has a lot of potential and is an empowering night at the theatre. Not perfect by any means, but a story worth telling with a character who should tell it.
Delicate Flowers is playing multiple venues in Hull and the East Riding until 21 February. For more information and tickets, visit the Hull Truck Theatre website.