“Grey Gardens” at the Southwark Playhouse

There are two five-star performances in this European première of Scott Frankel’s brave musical. Taking the roles of Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter ‘Little Edie’ – socialites who descend into far from genteel poverty – are Sheila Hancock and Jenna Russell. The latter takes both parts, playing mother at the play’s start in 1941, and then daughter when the action leaps into the 1970s. Full marks in both instances – I’m losing count of how many stars Russell deserves.

Notable as the first musical to be based on a documentary film, the book by Doug Wright and bold lyrics from Michael Korie get a lot from this true story of privilege and mental instability. Grey Gardens is a nuanced look at a bizarre filial relationship that broadens beautifully as it questions frustrations about art, age and class. If there are reservations, there’s a feeling it helps to know the original film, although director Thom Southerland’s characteristically ambitious staging makes this a satisfying theatrical evening.

On the day of Little Evie’s engagement (with a young Jacqueline Bouvier lined up to be a bridesmaid), family eccentricities make eligible bachelor, one Joseph Kennedy, run away. Both mother and daughter (played in these scenes by one-to-watch Rachel Anne Rayham) have a “yen for the spotlight” and fancy themselves as performers. Frankel’s eclectic score gives them plenty of opportunity. Adding to frivolity is the live-in pianist, an “imported” black sheep, tackled stylishly by Jeremy Legat, and disapproving patriarch, Major Bouvier, impeccably performed by Billy Boyle.
Grey Gardens 2 Jenna Russell Photo Scott RylanderThere’s tragedy in the air even with a lot of 1940s fun, And the nostalgia has bite as the Bouvier Beales become trapped in past. The start of Act Two is one of the funniest things you’ll see: with Little Edie preparing to do battle with neighbours unhappy with the state of the house, now described as a 28-room litter box for their out-of-control cats and condemned as unfit for human habitation.Russell is in total control of the audience’s funny bones – it’s a camp treat with a New England drawl that brings tears to the eyes.
Grey Gardens 8 Sheila Hancock Photo Scott Rylander
As the insanity grows, Hancock gets a song about corn – yes, corn on the cob – and it’s clear this odd couple is in real trouble. Hancock’s ability to deliver cruel remarks gets the laughs, but care is taken to show the pain of these reclusive, paranoid lives. It’s a brave musical that carries such dour overtones but I don’t think either Edie would want our pity. These “staunch” women see character as a question of turning any scandal into triumph. Which is close to what the musical itself achieves, with its celebration of the individual and its characters’(admittedly unfulfilled) artistic aspirations. The Bouvier Beales finally get the applause they craved.

Until 6 February 2016


Photos by Scott Rylander