The Finborough Theatre’s latest rediscovery is this early play by Robert Bolt – author of A Man for all Seasons, as well as screenplays for sprawling epics such as Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia. Written in 1957, Flowering Cherry is painted on a rather smaller canvas: the action all takes place in the kitchen of a modest suburban house, at the fag-end of the Fifties. Jim Cherry (Liam McKenna) is in insurance – but he dreams of relocating to Somerset to grow apples, harking back nostalgically to the sunny, blossom-dappled days of his youth.
But he’s not just sentimental – he’s also sozzled, and a compulsive liar. Dreams slide into delusions slide into lies as rotten as old apple-cores. Jim is a trial to his long-suffering wife Isobel (Catherine Kanter), and accused of being a phoney by his children, embarrassed at dad’s sloshed garrulousness. Ruddy-faced and burly, he likes to show off how manly he can be by bending iron bars; that this becomes a key plot point is as silly as it sounds.
In fact, he’s not the only phoney. His children – the gauche, earnest Tom and the chilly Judy – have posh accents, read Eliot and adopt a pose of poised exasperation at their parents. But when Judy starts bringing round college chum Carol – cooler, chicer, meaner and more manipulative – their essential innocence is exposed even in the act of trying (painfully hard) to sound knowing and off-hand. James Musgrave and Hannah Morrish capture the quivering energy of such uncertain young adults nicely. Even Isobel is terribly worried, in that British Fifties housewife way, about keeping up appearances; Benjamin Whitrow’s production is good on the knife-edge subtleties of class and social status, the codes of coolness and respectability either side of the generation gap. Alex Marker’s design convincingly creates their little world in slavish detail, right down to – yes – the kitchen sink.
The problem is, Jim goes so far beyond just being phoney and into absurdly, catastrophically self-delusional that it’s hard to feel any sympathy for the man. Over the course of several excruciatingly plotted set-ups and revelations (money stolen for booze; lies told about owning an orchard; a tediously clichéd encounter with the minxy Carol), Jim is revealed to be petty, short-tempered, and an alcoholic; a compulsive liar, a terrible husband, and a total coward. You long for the eminently sensible Isobel – willing to go to saintly levels of self-sacrifice – to leave instead. This somewhat lowers the dramatic stakes.
I’m sure it’s not the easiest role, but while McKenna gives a physically fine performance – he nails the horribly queasy leering and all-round pathetic mess of an in-denial drunk – he plumbs no depths. Like his wife, all we get is the fakery. For this role to incite compassion rather than bathos, we need to see the sorry man beneath the empty dreams. The contrast with Kanter’s performance of finely-wrought disappointment and forbearance is almost too stark; he seems like a cartoonish tom cat, she like a character from an Arthur Miller play. Indeed, Flowering Cherry was apparently hailed at its premiere as a British Death of a Salesman. That seems generous now – and this production never quite blossoms.
Flowering Cherry runs at the Finborough Theatre until 20 December