Review – The Chalk Garden, Donmar Warehouse

Tuesday 10 June 2008

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.

Margaret Tyzack in The Chalk GardenSo 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.

Margaret Tyzack and Penelope Wilton in The Chalk GardenShe 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 pMargaret Tyzack, Jamie Glover and Felicity Jones in The Chalk Gardenert 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!

21 Responses to “Review – The Chalk Garden, Donmar Warehouse”

  1. TimW Says:

    So it was only me that thought that Penelope Wilton (DBE-in-waiting) was wearing Mary Poppins’ hairdo.

  2. That whole opening scene had more than a whiff of Mary Poppins about it, didn’t it? It’s probably just as well that they resisted giving Penny an umbrella with a parrot head for a handle. I don’t think I could have resisted.

  3. Mark I Says:

    Whingers, whingers, whingers!

    You are the last people I would have expected to be so free and easy about the concept of an anagram!

    Bagnold’s name is not an anagram of Bold Ending, it’s an anagram of Bold Endithag.

    Although it is also an anagram of Aged Blond Hit, It Handled Gob, Habit Led Dong, and No Bad Delight!

  4. DavidR Says:

    Talking anagrams – Binkie Beaumont is an anagram for “Banknote Imbue I” (appropriate for the West End in it’s sadly gone heyday!). Better still is “Akimbo Bet Ennui” although I think we should be told who Bet Ennui is(was) !! Good on you, Binkie.

  5. For it to be an anagram of Aged Blond Hit etc, the play would have to have been written by Enid Bagthold, not Bagnold. The Whingers are spot on, in this respect at least. Conversely, they’ve only discovered Felicity Jones some months after those who saw The Ugly One in its Royal Court Upstairs incarnation.

    The Whingers’ preferred tipple is, of course, Shrewdest New Gin; I doubt they’d align themselves politically with Sweden’s New Right, though they’ve probably been known to play the odd hand of New Genders Whist…

    I remain yr obdt svt,
    Lust With Another.

  6. hath insult wrote!
    anti-thursh towel
    aunt with holster
    halo written thus
    slow aunt thither

  7. webcowgirl Says:

    Okay! Fine! I’ll go! (I wanted to go tonight but it’s press night and as a mere blogger I don’t rate.)

  8. dan Says:

    @webcowgirl – a Donmarite told me they have trouble fitting everyone in on Press Night – I bravely tried to drink enough white wine to make up though.

  9. Simone Says:

    Seeing it next Friday, can’t wait now!

  10. Discovering Felicity Jones (someone write that film!) has been pretty difficult since she’s been playing Emma Grundy on The Archers for the better part of a decade.

  11. Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

    Penelope Wilton has her own Chalk Garden anagrams:

    inept pollen woe
    wellie opponent

  12. betsy Says:

    visited the donmar on press night once, by mistake. apparently they don’t let ‘the public’ in at all, even if there are empty seats. quite understandably. who in their right mind would let the critics be distracted by the reactions of paying punters, when there’s a whole cast of friends of the cast just itching to rise to their feet at the end?

  13. Derek Says:

    Why miss Peggy Ashcroft (Miss Madrigal) from the cast of the 1956 London production? A bad mistake.

  14. Debs Says:

    Hi Whingers,

    I went to The Chalk Garden last week on your recommendation and loved every second of it, so thanks for that! Brilliant production. I also am still quoting the line about not being at my best through mahogany.

    I was so keen that I took one of the ‘standing’ tickets, where you’re put at the back of the circle, behind everyone else (still not a bad view). Imagine my excitement when the man in the box office told me there was ‘a bar to lean on’. Imagine my disillusionment when I discovered he actually meant a metal rail.

  15. Oooh, Debs! You got us really excited about the bar then. Maybe it’s an idea the Donmar can work up into something really useful.

    Glad you enjoyed the most sublime West End experience of 2008 (so far).

    We’re also tickled pink that anyone should do anything on our recommendation.

  16. Loved The Chalk Garden too, Whingers.

  17. […] have already sold out way early since critics have given it very good praises indeed. The West End Whingers, whose blog I religiously follow claims that it’s one of the best productions they have seen […]

  18. Hoorah! EVERYONE loves The Chalk Garden. Phil says it’s the new Hairspray.

  19. J.A. Says:

    Well the Donmar was home to the ‘old’ Hairspray – Divas at the Donmar.

  20. Marvellous, Julia! That’s the sort of thing we would do.

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