DramaReviewSouth East

The Chalk Garden – Chichester Festival Theatre

Writer: Enid Bagnold

Director: Alan Strachan

Reviewer: Steve Turner

It’s a rare treat to find a work with such substantial central roles for three generations of women. Rarer still to find them played with such dexterity and passion as they are here.

Enid Bagnold’s celebrated, but perhaps underperformed tale of the matriarchal Mrs St Maugham, her granddaughter Laurel and the intriguing Miss Madrigal is set in the garden room of Mrs St Maugham’s house near the sea in Sussex.  First performed in 1955 there are parts that feel a little dated, there are also parts that were written as deliberately old-fashioned, serving to emphasise the fading grandeur of the lady of the house as well as the house itself.

The play itself is a fascinating mix of witticisms, barbed comments and raw emotion, with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments interspersed with moments of pure melancholy. Alan Strachan’s directing combined with the consummate abilities of all on stage keep this melange of emotions going throughout as the dialogue comes thick and fast. This is not a play full of brooding silences but one of hidden truths that slowly unravel amid some gloriously acerbic wit.

Penelope Keith is on sparkling form as the sharp-tongued, spiteful Mrs St Maugham, she has the opportunity to steal the show but possesses the skill to avoid that happening. Unlike the garden in which nothing flourishes, both Amanda Root as Miss Madrigal and Emma Curtis as Laurel are given space to blossom and they certainly do.

From the moment Miss Madrigal arrives having answered an advertisement for a companion for Laurel, there is a sense that she is keeping something significant hidden. Initially a woman of few words, she progresses to a stage where she feels confident enough to confront the aging and bed-ridden Pinkbell – a man who has not been questioned for 40 years.  Amanda Root controls this progression from quiet spinster to confident governess perfectly, all the while giving the impression of a coiled spring about to explode.

As the troubled 16-year-old Laurel, Emma Curtis gives a carefully observed performance managing to convey the mix of a desire to be free-spirited but a longing for some sort of order and love in her life. Her desire for a father figure is clear in her interactions with Maitland, played by Matthew Cottle, the manservant helping keep the household together despite his somewhat shattered nerves.

Played out on an exquisitely detailed set by Simon Higlett, this is a captivating study of love, its absence, and the effect this has on us all. Bagnold’s underlying metaphor of the chalk soil being unsuitable for the plants that have been selected, mirrors the lack of love experienced by the three main characters owing to the paths they have chosen.

Slowly, through the arrival of Laurel’s mother who is now pregnant after remarrying, and the Judge – an old flame of Mrs St Maugham’s,  a chain of events is set off that reveals more about the characters and their motivations. Here the earlier comedy subsides and is replaced by more thoughtful and insightful dialogue as the characters open up and reveal their true feelings, each coming to terms with a significant chapter in their past and finding a way to move forwards with their lives.

Whilst this isn’t a cutting-edge drama, and it wouldn’t have been 60 years ago either, it remains a wonderfully entertaining piece, superbly written and in this revival performed and directed to the highest of standards.

Runs until 16 June 2018 | Image: Catherine Ashmore

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wonderfully entertaining

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The South East team is under the editorship of Nicole Craft. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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