I approached Grey Gardens aware of its 10 Tony Award nominations. That it has taken 10 years to find a London home was a concern. Would this tale of two frankly batty old American socialites fallen into squalor on a Long Island estate in the East Hamptons even make sense to a British audience? I’m delighted to say it does – and Southwark has a sizeable hit on its hands. The house, home to 52 stray cats, a few rabid racoons and its two reclusive inhabitants may make an unlikely setting for a musical. But then again, Cats was set on a rubbish tip.
The inhabitants in question, “Little” Edie Bouvier Beale and her mother, Edith Bouvier Beale, were cousin and aunt to Jackie Kennedy Onassis – and therein lay the scandal.
Danielle Tarento’s production is brave and mesmerising. From the moment you set foot inside the home of this most eccentric mother and daughter, Tom Rogers (Set) and Howard Hudson (Lighting) create a feeling of stifling suffocation in the industrial Southwark Playhouse. The set nods to both Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and the interior of Dickens’ Satis House. Grey Gardens is both mausoleum and mansion. Lamps are set on an angle. Upturned chairs, whisky and dirt rise up from an ochre sea of discarded hats and scarves; faded photographs peer down at the bare floorboards. Suitcases which clearly haven’t travelled anywhere in decades lie filled with unworn clothes. Only a Bakelite telephone on an upright piano hints at what is to come.
Sheila Hancock (Old Edith) enters like a ghostly Miss Havisham, momentarily followed by Jenna Russell (“Little” Edie) who trudges down the stairs like a weary Norma Desmond who can’t really be bothered. These women live in a social enclave where you can be arrested for wearing red shoes on a Thursday. So perhaps it’s perfectly normal to want to elope with the cat or believe that “if you can’t get a man to propose then you might as well be dead”?
Grey Gardens (book Doug Wright, music Scott Frankel and lyrics Michael Korie) takes a documentary probably better known to US audiences and with a little embellishing of the truth, turns it into an accomplished stage musical. Jenna Russell plays both “Little” Edie Beale and Edith Bouvier Beale, with Sheila Hancock taking the role of the older Edith in 1973. Both performances are quite remarkable, with both Hancock and Russell providing charm and fallibility in equal measure. The mother-daughter bond is at once touchingly sad and horribly claustrophobic -and never less than delightfully eccentric.
Much of 1941 seems to have been spent around the piano or ruining their children’s relationships. Edith’s “gin and platonic” amour George Gould Strong (Jeremy Lagat) provides a succession of fantastic one-liners and bitchy asides, “I just adore children – especially grown ones”. Their relationship is one of mutual benefit – she adores singing and he adores glamour. At times Lagat’s acting can’t quite match the women on stage but his versatility as a pianist and singer more than compensates.
Edith’s father J.V. Major Bouvier (Billy Boyle) is a man obsessed with responsibility and devastated that his daughter did not turn out republican. He makes no secret of his revulsion for the effeminate Gould or his disappointment of a daughter who is “An actress without a stage.”
If there were any doubt of Gould’s homosexuality, it is soon put to bed with the arrival of the strikingly handsome Joseph Patrick Kennedy (Aaron Sidwell). A study in assured ego and chiselled features, Sidwell’s Kennedy is perfectly described by Gould – “Somewhere…there is a pedestal missing its statue”. Sadly his love for “little” Edie expires as soon as he realises that she isn’t First Lady material.
Men don’t come off very well at all in Grey Gardens. Edith’s husband fails to arrive at his daughter’s engagement, preferring instead to send a telegram from Mexico to inform her that he is divorcing her mother. Although the musical’s book does take some fairly dramatic liberties, it perfectly highlights a world of hypocrisy in which society women were often trapped.
“Little” Edie quite possibly suffered what would now be diagnosed as bipolar disorder, leading to sometimes extreme behaviour. Her relationship to Edith is often that of Rapunzel to the Witch – both so determined to protect one other from the world outside that neither is truly free to enjoy it.
In 1941, little Edie is played by relative newcomer Rachel Anne Rayham who is out-performed by the more experienced cast before coming into her own in the terrific “Two Peas in a Pod” and “Daddies Girl”. The musical numbers lift a plot which might otherwise lag. This is particularly true of the beautiful “Drift Away” which beautiful paints a man more faithful to Edith than the husband who promised to be.
Act Two leaps forward to 1973 with one of the great performances of Musical Theatre as Jenna Russell’s now 56-year-old “little” Edie takes to the stage in a revolutionary knitted costume, designed to cover her alopecia though not her dignity. It’s pant-wettingly funny and worth the cost of a ticket alone. Hancock’s deadpan delivery of put-downs as “Old” Edith is second to none. What daughter doesn’t want to hear “Is it my fault that you’re unmarried, bald and fat?” and “You look horrible”. But as Edith says, it’s very difficult to raise a child of 56 years old.
Aaron Sidwell returns in Act Two as the beguiling houseboy, Jerry and somehow maintains pretty-but-dumb sex appeal amongst piles of meat, trash and cat faeces. The desperation of two lonely women competing for his attention, including the euphemistic desire of old Edith to get him to “eat her corn”, is both heart-breaking and slightly unsettling.
56 year old Edie is never lost for a comeback to her mother’s put-downs with lines such as “I can’t lose weight – the ice box is too near” or more practially when we’re not too sure if Edie is feeding her mother pate or a tin of giblets meant for the cats.
Thom Southerland’s direction is light and deft and Lee Proud‘s intelligent choreography cleverly interprets a strong score performed well under the supervision and direction of Simon Lee and Michael Bradley. The only time the music really seems incongruous is in the (admittedly) uplifting “Choose to be happy” which adds some light relief in a gospel number performed entirely in old Edith’s bedroom and up the staircase.
Grey Gardens is best summed up by one line. “The definition of character? To take a scandal and make it a triumph.” And Grey Gardens is most undoubtedly triumphant.
Southwark Playhouse until 6th February
020 7407 0234