How to Build a Better Tulip

I’m not particularly into gardening or botany, although (perhaps because of my time spent in the Netherlands) I am fond of tulips and of Mark Giesser’s writing.

Loosely based on The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas, Giesser has brought the story into the present day where genetic modification is rife and bizarre plant breeding is met with suspicion.

In How to Build a Better Tulip, Audrey Braddock (Zöe Ann Bown) and Adrian Vanderpol (Richard Lynson) not only forced to share a greenhouse, but each of them is subject to the thoughts and ambition of two of their predecessors – Carolus Hoofdorn (Martin Wimbush) and Cornelia Vanderpol (Molly Vevers).

The two botanists must endure the plotting and grumbling of their ancestors, who are both hoping to produce the mythical black tulip. Add in Audrey’s wayward daughter Perci (who’s dating Adrian) and you have a comedy.

The humour is subtle, but clever and is more about history than botany. Secrets are spilled and feuds come to a peak (Audrey considers murdering Adrian with a shovel), but nobody succeeds in breeding a black tulip.

The acting is strong and Molly Vevers does well as keen PhD student Sheila and Cornelia (although at one point her jeans do protrude from her gown) and Zöe Ann Brown (despite a few missed lines) is superb as the irritable botanist with her wry expressions and dry humour. Martin Wimbush meanwhile, gives a lovely performance as Sergeant Ellsworth and Carolus Hoofdern.

Music fits well with the story and its context and the audience love that Diamonds are Forever plays when Perci sneaks into the greenhouse. The set is very detailed, with all sorts of garden tools, plants and equipment; there’s even a bed for a quick scene between Adrian and Perci.

The play isn’t for everyone as the humour is quite discreet (and personally I think the title’s far too long to be appealing), but it’s very enjoyable and gives the fairly droll work of Dumas a nice modern twist.

Reviewed by Michaela Clement-Hayes


How to Build a Better Tulip plays at the Tabard Theatre until 31 May 2014

Click here to book tickets