Now, let us think a minute… When was the last time the Whingers left a play yearning to get their hands on a copy of the “text”? Oh yes, we remember now… That’s right – never.
Until last night when the Whingers tripped happily out of the revival of Enid Bagnold’s The Chalk Garden at the Donmar Warehouse.
If the Donmar had set out to suck up to the Whingers to compensate for their somewhat mediocre fare of late, they couldn’t have done a better job than this. It had everything: sparkling dialogue, a proper set; food consumption on stage, an eccentric old matriarch, a touch of melodrama, wigs, costumes, two should-be Dames of the British Empire at the top of their game acting their socks off – and all in the space of two hours.
The Chalk Garden was first performed on Broadway in 1955. Set in a Sussex house (apparently based on Bagnold’s own Rottingdean home which had previously belonged to Sir Edward Burne-Jones) it tells the story of a dysfunctional family led by the matriarchal Mrs St. Maugham. Disapproving of her daughter’s remarriage, Mrs St Maugham (Margaret Tyzack) has made herself responsible for her alarmingly eccentric granddaughter Laurel’s (Felicity Jones) upbringing. When she engages the mysterious Miss Madrigal (Penelope Wilton) as governess, the fragile construction of the family begins to implode.
First things first. Bagnold (or, to give her her correct title, Enid, Lady Jones) wrote cracking dialogue. She is best known for her novel on which the Elizabeth Taylor/Mickey Rooney film National Velvet (“Simple Story Of A Boy . . . A Girl . . . And A Horse!”) was based. But her entire canon (including her intriguingly titled first play Lottie Dundass) must now be revived. We insist upon it.
So too must the entire repertory of classic roles created by Dame Edith Evans (the original London Mrs St. Maugham) and Dame Margaret Rutherford be revived. For the hitherto lamentably under-used Margaret Tyzack at 76 is the closest we shall probably ever see to the genius of those two embodiments of English eccentricity. What Tyzack can’t do as an actress probably isn’t worth doing. Her comic timing and delivery are faultless but so too is her ability to inhabit the dramatic heart of a character.
She does, in fact, steal the show and – let’s face it – not many could steal from that other great Dame-in-Waiting Penelope Wilton who through her unmoving face and eyes can display tumbling internal memories and thoughts in a way which quite gives us the willies.
Gush, gush, gush. Sorry. That’s not why you come to this blog, is it?
Anyway, a generous nod of the head from the Whingers also goes to Felicity Jones who makes excellent work of what could be an intensely irritating Laurel. The role of the pert and absurdly bright 16-year-old (Jones is actually 24) is the kind that would normally have the Whingers reaching out to wring the character’s neck but no such feelings here. The actress already has her own appreciation page so the Whingers can take no credit for discovering her. Although we probably will one day.
They play itself is, it must be said, something of a curiosity – part-melodrama, part-Wildean comedy of manners, part mystery, part black comedy – so all credit to director Michael Grandage for keeping the whole thing in balance. A big thumbs up too to designer Peter McKintosh whose over-stuffed, ultra-realistic set (right down to the algae on the glass roof, as would-be Whinger Mark pointed out) almost seems like a character in its own right. The only thing missing is a proscenium arch (but just wait until the transfer!).
Although originally billed as having no interval, the Donmar has squeezed one in. Although this seems unnecessary and damaging from the audience’s point of view, presumably it’s for the good of the cast. Although it disrupted the flow of the play, the Whingers were in fact grateful for the opportunity to tell anyone who would listen just how much they were enjoying it. Now when did you last hear them say that?
In fact we couldn’t wait to get back into the theatre for the last scene – and this on a warm, sultry evening when we would normally be hankering for an alfresco glass of wine. If possible, the interval should be removed although the running time on the Donmar’s website seems to have settled at two hours, so presumably it’s here to stay.
If the plot doesn’t bear too close a scrutiny, what with its contrived coincidence and rather roughshod psychology, the Whingers were able to overlook all minor quibbles in return for just about all of their theatrical wish-list boxes being ticked in one evening.
Indeed the whole audience was grinning from ear to ear; it’s impossibly to get across how hilarious some of the lines come across in the hands of Tyzack et al as Phil’s pen ran out a few minutes after it began but he did manage to get down, “I would not think of staying in a house where there isn’t even a nephew”. Andrew enjoyed, “One is not at one’s best through mahogany”. But reading these on the page can not even begin to suggest the effect they have when delivered by Tyzack or Wilton.
The bizarre thing about The Chalk Garden is that it switches quickly from humour to drama and back again in the blink of an eye. The last seconds of the play gets a huge laugh and then the lights immediately fade on a poignant scene. But should we really be surprised? Edith Bagnold is after all an anagram of “a bold ending”.
Did we mention that we enjoyed it? If you are anything like the West End Whingers then may god have mercy on your soul but do not on any account miss this production.
The on-stage food gets a special credit in the programme “Chicken supplied by Fortnum & Mason” no less. But had the accompanying salad (which looked like ready-washed frisee to Phil) been discovered in fifties Britain?
Interesting names found in programme credits No 3.
In the list of costume makers (the frocks were excellent – as were the hats) look out for the wonderfully named Sil Devilly. It’s an anagram of Silly Devil. Is he/she trying to tell us something?
Interesting historical tidbits
- Poor Binkie Beaumont – he dithered when Bagnold’s excited agent first sent him the play and he asked her if the play “had a deliberate state of madness”. It went on to be staged on Broadway with Gladys Cooper leading the cast but as soon as the reviews were out Binkie cabled that he wanted to stage it in London ASAP.
- The London version in 1956 at the Harymarket starred John Gielgud, Dame Edith Evans and Judith Scott. Imagine!
- It was made into a movie the following year with Dame Edith Evans, Deborah Kerr, John Mills and Hayley Mills. DEE was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
- A revival in 1971 – again at the Haymarket – featured Joan Greenwood and Gladys Cooper (again!). Imagine!