Ian McEwan’s first novel, The Cement Garden (1978) is a short, morbid and absorbing novel that earned him the sobriquet Ian McAbre.
The story concerns four children whose father and mother die in quick succession. When their mother dies though, the older ones decide not to go to the authorities fearing they will be taken into care and split up. So, they carry their mother’s body down into the cellar, shove her in a trunk and pour cement on top. As the hot summer wears on and the children run wild, the smell of putrefaction invades the cellar from a crack in the concrete, raising the suspicions of the older sister’s boyfriend.
At the centre of the narrative is 15-year-old Jack a self-absorbed, sexually frustrated teenager, with appalling hygiene. Sentimentally immature and harbouring incestuous thoughts for his sisters, Jack tries to come to terms with his growing pains. The adaptors chose to frame the narrative retrospectively. An adult Jack- George MacKay- narrates the events of that summer to his younger brother Tom, who was at the time just a toddler. His boisterous mode of story-telling, fitting with the teenage Jack’s personality.
The vaults beneath Waterloo station make a suitably dark and dank location for Jimmy Osborne and David Aula’s stage adaptation of the book. The frequent thumping of the passing trains ingenuously incorporated, as the traffic from the nearby motorway. The split-level set, features below a great wall of cardboard boxes, with dispersed house ornaments, a sandbox and the notorious trunk, doubling up as the cellar, the garden and the family kitchen. While, above, balancing on metal joists are the beds. Even though the set does not portray effectively a family home it fits exceptionally with the vaults decrepitly industrial vibe.
The youngest child, Tom, who likes dressing up in girl’s clothes and later pretends to be a baby, is represented by a crude puppet made out of brown wrapping paper operated by an older actor – David Annen – who also delivers his words. This attempt in playful originality is both impractical and unsuccessful. Even though convincing in baby-talk and mannerisms, the puppet, crude as it is, is impractical to handle. Annen’s second role as a stage prop helping the actors to climb on the upper level of the set, usually results with him purposelessly mid-stage.
The mother – played by Victoria Gould – manages to be both poignant and faintly grotesque, especially when advising her older son on the dangers of self-abuse. George MacKay is excellent as the bewildered recipient of her ill-informed advice. Ruby Bentall, does not manage to portray effectively enough the complex role of Julie, as surrogate mother, sexual fantasy and teenage tease. Even though, some of her duets with George MacKay, are performed with disconcerting tension. George MacKay, in contrast, brings a bright-eyed magnetism and inexhaustible energy to his role and succeeds at times to be genuinely disturbing.
The main problem with the play is its length and occasionally repeated and slow action. It feels protracted. I have not read the original novel as to be able to attest to the accurate rendering of the atmosphere, but I believe the adaptation to be needlessly long-winded.