Grey Gardens**** (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: January 14, 2016 in Theatre


If history can be condensed into headlines and footnotes, the story told here falls most definitely into the latter category. In 1941, young Presidential hopeful Joe Kennedy (Aaron Sidwell) arrives at Grey Gardens, home in the Hamptons of the “aristocratic” Bouvier clan, to seal his engagement to Little Edie (Rachel Anne Rayham), daughter of the flamboyant Edith (Jenna Russell), described as “that worst of things, an actress without a stage”. Mother’s antics disrupt daughter’s plans, but maybe the actress gene has been passed on and the two women embark on a lifelong journey of mutual loathing and mutual dependence. Joe was fated to be killed in action three years later, but the great irony is that Jaqueline Bouvier (seen in this show as a little girl) was to become the bride of his younger brother Jack and eventually ascend to the White House. This musical (book Doug Wright, music Scott Frankel, lyrics Michael Korie) sheds light on the uneasy flirtation between politics and showbiz that, in many ways, characterised the Kennedy presidency. It was a success on Broadway and is now getting its UK premiere. The first half, set almost entirely in 1941, flows smoothly, mixing 40s swing music with simple songs in the style of Ivor Novello and Edith’s protege, gay pianist Gould (Jeremy Legat) is on hand to provide accompaniment and bitchy asides. However, this part of the show is not entirely satisfying in establishing the mother/daughter relationship that is at the heart of the story. Partly this is due to Rayham’s Little Edie being more like a precocious teenager than the “Miss Body Beautiful” aged 24 that she actually was, but also Russell looks uncomfortable when projecting the conflicting roles that life has cast her into. The second act fast forwards to 1973 and a media frenzy over Jacqueline (now Mrs Onassis) allowing her aunt and cousin to live reclusive lives at Grey Gardens in squalid conditions with over 50 cats. Octogenarian Edith is now played by Sheila Hancock, with wild white hair, complaining at the difficulties of bringing up a 56-year-old daughter. Russell steps down a generation to play Little Edie, her bald head hidden beneath a variety of hoods. The scene is reminiscent of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? with a similar mic of pathos, comedy and camp horror. Russell and Hancock set the show ablaze with an unforgettable double act, each taking turns to have intimate conversations with the audience and to hurl vicious insults at each other. Edith still has her male sidekick, Gould having been replaced by Jerry, a dim-witted errand boy (Sidwell, unrecognisable from Act I), but Brooks (Ako Mitchell) remains their trusty servant, albeit 32 years older. The message is that the show must go on in the face of any adversity, as true for politics as for show business. Director Thom Southerland and choreographer Lee Proud know how to use every inch of this space to full advantage, even when negotiating the clutter of Tom Rogers’ set and a nine piece band, conducted by Michael Bradley, provides the richest sound heard here since Titanic. Southerland and his team have achieved a string of successes on the fringe by breathing fresh life into forgotten American musicals, but they have yet to get a West End transfer. Star casting could well help then to break through that barrier this time.

Performance date: 7 January 2016

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