Two interdependent, dysfunctional, eccentric old bats who spend their days musing on their lost looks, past talents and opportunities missed. Now residing in whiffy squalor, feeding a menagerie of cats and prone to talking to themselves or passing their peculiar limbo squabbling with each other. One thinks they possess a finely judged sartorial taste, when in reality it could only be described as eclectic.
Remind you of anyone? No, not Andrew and Phil. They were never glamorous in the first place. These are the former socialites and East Hampton residents, mother and daughter Edith Bouvier Beale and Edith Bouvier Beale.
If you’ve seen the cult 1975 documentary film Grey Gardens you’ll have a good idea of what to expect. If you haven’t seen it then you’ll definitely want to see it after this musical version (book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel, and lyrics by Michael Korie) that was something of a success (10 Tony nominations, 3 wins) on Broadway in 2006. Expect other film documentaries, Super Size Me, Man On Wire and Bowling For Columbine with songs before long.
Act 1 speculates on what led the Bouvier Beales from their sparkling heyday as socialites in the forties to their “28-room litter box”, Grey Gardens in 1973. Young Edie, nearly marries JFK’s older brother Joseph Kennedy (Aaron Sidwell, who played another dysfunctional Beale, Stephen, in Eastenders) and we’re treated to appearances by the two Ediths’ cousins/nieces, a young Lee Bouvier (latterly Radziwill) and Jackie Bouvier (latterly Kennedy and O), not to mention Basil Brush’s old sparring partner Billy Boyle as Major Bouvier.
Little Edie’s number, “The Revolutionary Costume for Today” is as camp as it is hilarious and brilliantly performed by Jenna Russell who is absolutely at the top of her game here. How many single men of-a-certain-age (and there were a lot of single men of-a-certain-age at our performance) headed home to their bathroom mirrors and attempted “a Persian shawl, that used to hang on the bedroom wall, pinned under the chin, adorned with a pin and pulled into a twist” look? Go on admit it. We did.
Sheila Hancock‘s older Edith has little to do before the interval as Russell plays the younger version of older Edith while Rachel Anne Rayham (rather good) plays the younger version of Little Edie. Still with us? Hancock manages to be rather touching, despite spending much of Act 2 in her rancid bed and burdened with singing “Jerry likes my corn”. Top marks to Sidwell for not only being convincing as two completely different characters (Joseph Kennedy and Jerry) despite a terrible wig (as Jerry) and having to eat a cob of sweet corn on stage. We hope the Playhouse supplies toothpicks for him.
The sound designer’s “live band knob” was cranked up far too high, which drowned swathes of the lyrics in Act 1 at the preview we attended, but things improved in Act 2. You can only really appreciate how faithful to the documentary the post-interval shennanigans are by getting hold of a copy of the movie. Little Edie’s bizarre flag-waving dance in the show is just how we remember it from the film.
If it all sounds as if the audience is being invited in to laugh at a freak show (and it does, at times, swing
deliciously dangerously close to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane territory) don’t worry. Thom Southerland’s production and the performances slowly get us on side with the characters leading to a finish which proved unexpectedly moving.
Out of Andrew’s party (6 single men of-a-certain-age), 2 admitted to welling up at the end. Rather surprisingly Andrew was one of them and he hadn’t felt this emotional since he found out the queue created by Southwark’s unreserved seating policy begins at around 6.45pm for a curtain up at 7.30pm. Now that’s what we call batty.