The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds

(Centenary Theatre Group)


By Paul Zindel,

Amateur production

Life’s a bitch, and before you die you take out your frustration and bitterness on other people, especially if you’re a deserted mother of two daughters.

Yes, some people live very grim lives, and if we hadn’t been made aware of this kind of situation through endless television documentaries over the years, we would scarcely be able to believe the characters in Paul Zindel’s Pulitzer-winning play.

An embittered, alcoholic, psychologically abusive mother (Beatrice, played by Gillian Simpson), whose idea of punishing her sad-sack daughter is to keep her home from school; the same sad-sack daughter (Gabrielle Scawthorn as Tilly) who puts up with it because she knows no way of escape; another daughter (Sarah Hope as Ruth) who is her mother’s darling because she’s half mad and will do whatever her mother likes when bribed by a cigarette. They take in one lodger at a time, usually somebody with senile decay, whose money helps keep Beatrice in ciggies and Jim Bean, and is usually neglected if not actively ill-treated. Happy Familles indeed! Move over, Tennessee Williams. And move over Glenn Close – even by boiling bunnies you’ve got nothing on Beatrice. Sick and sad, that’s this lot, but even the loneliest people can dream and hope. So as the play opens we find Tilly thinking great metaphysical thoughts about how the atoms that make up her hand have been part of the earth throughout its history. (Anyone who saw Jacob Bronowski running dirt from Auschwitz through his fingers will realise what she’s on about.) But just as we are preparing ourselves for a bit of deep philosophising, the scene switches to mother at her most abusive, and we are introduced to Tilly’s small ray of hope, given to her by her science teacher (a nice gay Jewish man, therefore sexually safe), in the form of a science experiment about – well, that’s where the play gets its title. And I’ve looked up man-in-the-moon marigolds to see whether they really exist, but not even Google could help.

There are tears before bedtime, of course, and the death of the bunny – in this case played by a very unconvincing stuffed toy – isn’t the worst of it. All Tilly’s dreams are shattered, when her mother manages to turn Tilly’s minor school triumph into yet another cause for her own paranoia, and by the end one wonders whether hope will spring eternal or remain dead on its feet. Will Tilly be one of the marigolds that are killed by the ray treatment, or will she survive, thrive and become a super-mutant?

Gloomy stuff, but a very powerful play, which hasn’t really dated in the sixty years since it was written – although I suspect that letting teenage girls play with gamma rays at home wouldn’t get past the education authorities these days. It’s also a good play for women, as all five roles (Alice Long is one of Tilly’s rivals at school who confidently introduces her own science project to the audience) are for females. The character Nanny, however, who shuffles around on a walking frame and doesn’t respond to any human contact, I find quite redundant, serving only as a reason to show Tilly’s good heart and her mother’s evil one, and Glen Roussos’s extremely bad wig does nothing to bring it alive.

Technically the play is ground-breaking, with its long internal monologues, a gift for any actor, and on the whole the three main characters perform quite well. Director Fred Wessely has wisely decided to forgo any attempt at American accents, but he’s obviously obsessed with clear diction, to the extent that too much of the dialogue is spoken as if the actors are in elocution class, or have come straight from a Speech and Drama exam. They ar-tic-u-late ver-y clear-ly , sometimes adding the odd syllable (the school as-sem-bal-ly was one that particularly grated), and often seem more focussed on the diction than the emotion. Pitch and volume need better control, too, for constantly shrieking at the top of the voice is not always the best way to emphasis an emotional moment.

Still, the play remains relevant, they’ve made a good attempt to get it right, and I don’t have too many complaints about it as an amateur production. And little theatre groups like this certainly have their place – they give actors experience, they attract small but faithful audiences, and most of all they give us the chance to see important plays that we would otherwise miss out on.

Directed by Fred Wessely

Playing until 29 July 2006, Friday and Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 6pm

Duration : just under two hours, with one interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Sat 22nd July 2006)