Event review: ‘Under the shadow of your wings’, the Cicely Mary Barker play

By - Tuesday 14th July, 2015

Such stuff as nightmares are made on – Liz Sheppard-Jones uncovers a darker Barker

Photo by Hive Productions, used with permission.

Croydon artist Cicely Mary Barker’s images of Flower Fairies are famous all over the world and worth millions. The fact that few have heard of their creator and just about no-one would associate her with her hometown is (in the words of David Bowie) ‘just so f**king Croydon‘. So much that we should be proud of – so very little done about it.

But we’re getting there: 2015 has seen the Flower Fairies Festival, brilliantly organised by the Friends of Park Hill Park, the celebration of famous Croydonians throughout the Heritage Festival, commemorations of the 120th annniversary of Barker’s birth, and now this play at the Hive, in St Andrew’s church in Southbridge Road on Thursday 9th, Friday 10th and Saturday 11th July. Despite the heat and stuffiness on Saturday evening, the high arched Hive makes a marvellous theatre space and I hope that Croydon’s actors and dramatists will make more use of it.

David Matthews has found the darker heart of Barker

What I know of Cicely Mary Barker’s life depresses me. The woman had no luck at all – ill for many years as a child, reaching adulthood just as the Great War decimated the ranks of her male peers, making the one escape route of marriage far less likely, then a life spent caring for relatives and home, with religion to resign her to her lot. But David Matthews, Barker’s biographer who wrote recently about her for the Citizen, has found the dark heart of Barker’s life and art, and brought it to the stage in a production which was at times compelling, at times frustrating.

Beneath the church-going gentility, this is a family whose members are angry with each other and the world but – trapped by their class and time – can’t address difficult emotions directly. Cicely’s mother, raging against her late husband’s mismanagement of business affairs which have left her worse off than she expected, copes with such unwifely feelings via displaced wrath at his associates. Family friend and would-be lover of Cicely’s sister Dorothy, Peter Wilcock, offers Dorothy a whole new life – emigration with him to New Zealand, travel to the unknown, excitement and the unnameable world of sexual fulfilment – and Dorothy refuses him, bound by a promise to her father to take care of fragile Cicely, a decision which later returns to eat her alive. Charlotte Armer’s tense stage presence as Dorothy holds back her regret and sorrow until a final, explosive attack on Cicely and her work – Cicely whose financial and artistic success has been bought at the cost of another’s life. It is Dorothy who has lived under the dark shadow of her sister’s exquisite wings.

Barker’s quite wrong about young children

Under the dark shadow of her sister’s wings.
Photo by Hive Productions, used with permission.

Act One is too long: points are laboured and could be made dramatically as well as in words – above all, we should see a fairy child embodied on stage. The excellent cast would have jumped at the chance, and the play’s most effective moments came when we were being shown as well as told, notably in the comical efforts of Neil Summerville’s Canon Ingram Hill to pose for Barker whilst holding a doll-baby over a font. Be more physical, I wanted to urge the director – make this a spectacle as well as a narration.

Then comes horror at the approach of World War Two: we know what’s about to happen but the Barker family is uncomprehending that the ‘ugly’ new air raid shelter in the garden will save lives. The sound of bombs falling on Croydon in the darkening church at the start of the second act was chilling.

And what of the fairies? First of all, Barker’s quite wrong about young children – ‘harmony between a child and a flower’, indeed! In this parent’s experience they are both sordid and selfish and were my sons to be painted as dandelion sprites I’d not be remotely convinced. Watching a smellier, coarser-skinned version of the ethereally beautiful little monster emerge with maturing compassion and humanity is an unreported joy of parenthood, yet at the heart of Matthews’ play is a woman who fails to make that journey: whilst the Blitz is on and homes and lives are being destroyed, she’s concerned that her paintings are smudged when the family home sustains minor damage. Conversations with clergymen about the nature of goodness and a wish to ‘paint simple humanity and leave the rest to God’ don’t cut it when actions speak differently – which immediately makes her more interesting, and Cicely came alive for me on stage as she’s never done in her art.

Death and destruction might drive the fairies away

Photo by Hive Productions, used with permission.

To capture such remote and elfin otherworldliness presented a challenge for Emma Kemp as Cicely and she rose to it, allowing her character to be unlikeable. So when her desperate sister attacks her in the play’s closing moments she merely floats away, having no answer for her, and no comfort. By now she knows that’ll work, too – it’s spared her the war, during which she was sent to the Sussex countryside because the death and destruction all around might ‘drive her fairies away’, while Dorothy remained in mortal danger in Croydon. Perhaps an artist – however beautiful her vision – must live selfishly to realise it, whether she admits this or not. In this moment, Cicely surely understands.

But the fairies are still lovely and their power is attested by their popularity. Is it nostalgia? Is it our wish for innocence to last longer than we know it ever can? Or are they merely ‘comforting’ – the accusation levelled at them by Peter Wilcock at the start of the play? Perhaps they are.

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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