How to Build a Better Tulip

Reviewer's rating

I am very very distantly related to Alexander Dumas. My mother’s great aunt was his great, great something or other. I raise this not becuase I want to show off my literary pedigree, but because I am wondering now if, had I ever got around to reading my distant ancestor’s The Black Tulip (on which this is loosely based) this show might have been a touch less baffling to me.

Sadly, I fear not.

This is an extremely confusing and confused piece of work. There are plots and sub-plots aplenty, but none make a great deal of sense nor truly serve a dramatic purpose. Why is Persimmon working for the CIA/MI5 and investigating (while also sleeping with) Adrian, a third rate scientist at a low grade university? Why are the police convinced that Adrian is an eco-terrorist? Why, after 400+ years are two people haunted by connected ghosts finally brought together? What does South America have to do with any of this? Who was Audrey’s late husband and does it matter? What is going on with the graduate student who is so bright she’s turned down places at Oxford and Cambridge yet seems utterly gullible and completely at the whims of her intellectual inferiors? These are not questions to which I recieved a satisfactory answer.

The play was delivered at breakneck speed by the cast. At times in such a way that it became even harder to fathom what was being said and what was going on. This pacing was interupted abruptly though by overlong scene changes which seemed to take forever, breaking up the fast pace of the show and also giving the audience too much time to think about what they weren’t getting from the show.

How to Build a Better Tulip is a play that has had several revivals and has been transposed from the US to the UK. None of this seems to have been done with much care. Cultural references remain that are significantly out of date (for example, within the space of one scene, a charatcer tells us he is not yet 40 and also that he had a spot of teenage bother for defacing a poster of Thatcher – who, at the most generous estimate – would have left power when he was seven). The whole thing seems oddly slapdash for a piece that is clearly writer and director Giesser’s passion project.

Maybe this is the problem. Giesser has clearly become wedded to this piece over time and as such has lost the ability needed to distance himself enough to see and deal with its flaws. That’s very human and very understandable. But I am afraid it doesn’t make for a very entertaining piece of theatre for the rest of us.