In the Newcastle suburb of Gosforth, an old man lingers in the garden of a house that was once his. Benjamin Storey’s short play Gutter Weeds is an emotionally rich, bittersweet portrait of a man who can’t let go of his grief, and how it creeps into the lives of others. Featuring Dominic McBride as Bill and Samantha Neale as Sam, the new tenant, Storey’s script brims with life and a certain warmth as we watch these unlikely friends talk, dance and potter about in the unkempt garden.
The great strength of this piece certainly comes from the empathy with which Storey treats his characters; it would be easy to paint Bill as an unsympathetic presence given that he is essentially trespassing onto Sam’s property, offering unsolicited advice on how to decorate the place, and becomes increasingly critical of anything or anyone deemed too modern for his sensibilities. However, Storey does not present him as malicious or condescending, rather as a lonely old man desperately clinging to the happy times now behind him after the death of his wife.
Bill’s grief is not sanitised or softened, and we do see bursts of anger and denial from him. But neither Storey nor the new tenant Sam seem to judge him for this. The result is an emotionally complex, honest portrayal of what it is to live with grief. Equally, Samantha Neale’s performance as Sam is feisty and full of life, a spirited contrast to the subdued Bill. Although a large amount of the narrative focus is placed on Bill and we get little insight into Sam’s past from the script, Neale presents her as a kind but assertive force who tries her best to coax Bill into the world of the living, despite having every reason not to.
However, my one slight criticism with this script is the conclusion it leads to, in the form of Bill demanding to know if Sam ‘[loves] this house’, to which she hesitantly replies. Sam’s initial evasiveness and Bill’s insistence that she must answer comes across as forceful, and her eventual ‘yes’ feels uncomfortable, as if she is just telling him what he wants to hear if it means that he will leave. It suggests that ultimately Sam’s attempts to help Bill let go have proved futile and eventually she, presumably like the two previous sets of tenants, will have to pander to Bill’s refusal to move on, even if it means him constantly encroaching on her space. Perhaps this is the intended message, but to me it felt a little unsatisfying. Bill’s story is a tragic one and I hoped that perhaps Sam’s influence and patience with him might bring about the change he so sorely needs, but instead his character ends up in the same place he started.
Despite this, overall Storey’s writing is emotionally intelligent, thoughtful and flows naturally as dialogue, and the performances from the two actors are warm and tender.
Gutter Weeds is playing as part of the 10 Minutes To Call Home digital programme until 31 October. For more information and to stream, visit Live Theatre online.