My whole life was music and song. It made up for everything
The UK premiere of Grey Gardens is an offbeat and complex musical affair currently playing at Southwark Playhouse until 6 February. The story is centred around the lives of two amazing women, Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Edie, in a reversal of the oft used rags to riches story. Mother and daughter begin life as part of the ‘set’ of the well-to-do Americans of North Hampton and end their lives as ‘cat ladies’ living in a house now condemned as a health hazard.
It was fortuitous that at this performance the three writer-collaborators were available for a post show chat session. Scott Frankel, who wrote the music was the initiator of the project and quickly co-opted Michael Korie to write lyrics. The pair was already working on the songs as they urged Doug Ryde to join the team and write the book. Ryde had reservations about adapting a documentary film for stage but eventually Frankel and Korie came up with a plan for the work and Ryde was on the team.
This stellar threesome has worked magic with the material and the result is a classic piece of theatre that has its origins in the Great American Songbook; work of the likes of Kern, Porter and Gershwin. Echoes of this musical style are heard very clearly in the first act. This is the act set in the glory days of 1941 when their world was beautiful. The second act is set in 1973 and the shift in circumstances and time is reflected in the change of character in the music. It is very cleverly done.
Unusually, the audience enters the theatre and must traverse the set to take their seats, sidestepping piles of curiosities, and glimpsing the world behind the house flats. It’s an intriguing way to begin the journey of this play and subsequent through passages at interval and at the end of the play allow for closer inspection.
Set designer Tom Rogers has playfully compiled pieces of memorabilia to represent the story, but dominating the playing space is the decaying but still beautiful façade of the house, Grey Gardens. It’s a recognizable interpretation of the original house, cunningly enhanced for theatre and its dual levels give the players added depth in which to act.
There is just a hint of the bars of the prison that the house became for the duo in later years. Jonathan Lipman used the same attention to detail in the costume design and styling of the very original ladies of the story; it is all lovingly handled for the stage. The colour palette used was very pleasing and apt.
The lighting design from Howard Hudson subtly supported the design and focused attention on the action. Likewise, Andrew Johnson’s Sound Design enhances the performance. There were only brief moments at the beginning of each act when the band overshadowed the spoken word, but perhaps that was a deliberate design choice at those times as that issue resolved itself for the remainder of the acts.
There is a prologue to Act 1 that is set in 1973, the time of the second act. The two ladies establish themselves as mother and daughter and then, through clever staging, Jenna Russell, playing the daughter in the prologue, morphs into the mother character for the first Act. So Russell seamlessly changes from daughter to mother and then back again to daughter for Act 2: it is a bravura performance. Her characterizations are clear and well defined, her singing sublime. A truly wonderful performance.
Either side of Jenna Russell are two more beautiful performances.
Sheila Hancock plays the mother role in the 1973 sections, showing us a wicked humour and then, with a heartbreaking pathos, is incredibly moving.
Rachell Anne Rayham embodies the Body Beautiful Beale, the nickname of Little Edie Beale, the daughter in the first act. With her fine singing, dancing and acting, Rayham portrays Edie as a tormented and trapped daughter, fighting for her independence and hinting at the eccentricities to come.
These three ladies have done a marvelous job of working collaboratively so that facets of Edith and Edie are discernable in the handling of each part by the different actors. This is undoubtedly due in large part to the direction of Thom Sutherland whose directorial concept is stamped clearly throughout. It lights up and enlivens the book to great effect.
Supporting the story is a very strong cast. The role of Edie’s fiancé in 1943 is played by Aaron Sidwell. On his first entrance, there is a line describing him as a statue of a Greek God and Sidwell is not only well cast in that respect but he also convinces as a very believable cad. In the second act, he doubles as the enigmatic Jerry with such clear delineation that it is not immediately apparent that it is the same actor in both roles.
Jeremy Legat as George Gould Strong is superbly urbane, sings really well and plays piano on stage. He is a true lounge lizard of a character.
Billy Boyle, as Edith’s father, is loveable and his song, Marry Well, is a delight. Boyle also doubles in the role of Norman Vincent Peale in Act Two. The third of this versatile trio is Ako Mitchell, who plays the role of the butler Poole, Senior in Act 1 and Junior in Act2. His performances add warmth to the play, as well as a further dimension to the characters of the two ladies.
Last, but by no means least, are the girls. Two very young ladies take the roles of Lee Bouvier and her sister, Jacqueline, who is, of course, the Jackie who, in later life, becomes Jacqueline Kennedy. It is the family connection with Jackie that brings the later plight of Edith and Edie to the notice of the American public. On this night Jacqueline was played by Grace Jenkins and Lee by Alana Hinge. Both of these girls are shining examples of the talented young people who are a product of an excellent education in performing arts. Their enthusiasm and dedication is delightful to witness.
Grey Gardens is, above all, a musical, and the success of this show is safely held in the musical direction of Simon Lee and the outstanding sound of his band. There is a wealth of music to enjoy and it all sparkled.
This is a show for an audience willing to think and invest in the production they are seeing. It is deeper in theme than your average razzle dazzle musical and requires more intellectual input. Effort will richly reward audiences.