Grey Gardens – Southwark Playhouse, London

Book: Doug Wright
Music: Scott Frankel
Lyrics: Michael Korie
Director: Thom Southerland
Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty


Since long before the day Icarus thought his waxen wings would carry him higher than wisdom told him they would, we have been obsessed with stories of falls from grace. From any level, a public crash is an attractive narrative, but when it happens to the blue-bloods and the aristos, it takes on a special irresistible piquancy.

As American aristocracy, the Beales and the Bouviers have, along with the closely linked Kennedys, been responsible for yards of newsprint in the social pages. It’s one of these articles that forms the core of this seriously sad musical. Describing the living conditions of Edith and her daughter, Edie Beale, the inhabitants of the titular Grey Gardens mansion, the piece describes the squalor, cats, raccoons, filth, and general dilapidation of the once great house.

The show, based on fact (and a cult documentary from the 1970s) but embellished for dramatic impact, charts the extreme high point and the low for the house and its inhabitants. Act One is ‘little’ Edie’s engagement party in 1941 to Joe Kennedy (brother of John F. who would later go on to marry Edie’s cousin Jackie) and the ructions her overbearing, grasping and inconsiderate mother causes when talking to the young man. Act Two covers the two old women living alone in 1973, reclusive, with over 50 cats and vermin and little left of their relationship but total symbiosis, percolating insanity and resentment.

We are looking at two women who have been victims of their own expectations, and when these, unfortunately, do not come out entirely as they would have liked (whether it was their own fault or no, the work does not make that judgement thankfully) the result rocks them both so much they are unable to recover. It’s a story of support, and of the many unhealthy facets of love and devotion. Many layers then, but also some absolute comic gold.

As ‘little’ Edie in the 1973 parts, Jenna Russell’s accent and mannerisms are excellent. Elongated Cape vowels and outrageous costuming are a super mix here, beguilingly coating the rot and dysfunction with a layer of gloss. Laughter also comes from the wit and verve in the book and the lyrics, with the two ladies’ insults flung like blunt javelins through the music – “It’s difficult to raise a child of 56”. Sheila Hancock, a beautiful performer as the elderly Edith is a desperately sad faded society rose, clinging on to the music of her youth while sitting in an insect-ridden bed calling out for her daughter to feed her.

The other cast turn in fine performances as well. As Major Bouvier, paterfamilias, Billy Boyle plays the genial grandfather and the stern father well, charming and a little distasteful when he advises his little granddaughters to “marry well’ as their prime ambition. Jeremy Legat as the camp accompanist and apologist who gets sick of Edith’s selfishness is a catty delight, and, holding up superbly well against an older, more experienced cast, young Grace Jenkins as Jackie Bouvier is a delight in a small role.

What makes this really pop is Tom Roger’s faded-glory mansion set. Grey wood, fallen ornaments, leaves and debris, clutter everywhere. In the 1941 segment, it’s an ominous foreshadow of what is to come in the 1973 setting, a depressing illustration of what happens when self-esteem no longer matters.

A few details mean this can’t take five stars. It’s a small enough venue, intimate, so the choice to amplify the singers voices seems a little overbearing and the mics are distracting from this close up. Also, the show itself seems confused as to its focus. It doesn’t really nail one theme properly. Are we looking at a personal story of these two ladies, are we looking at a wider loss and loneliness piece? It’s sympathetically done, but without a clear point or dramatic resolution to the story, it does feel a bit voyeuristic.

A few questions to ask, then. But ultimately they’re relatively inconsequential. In this musical’s case, the journey is more than strong enough to support the hazy end result.

Runs until 6 February 2016 | Image: Scott Rylander

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User Rating: 3.08 ( 6 votes)

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