The Southwark Playhouse is one of the perplexing of theatres - it has almost been designed to put you off going there: the queuing out of the front door to pick up tickets, the crowded bar with the glacially-moving staff, the perennial queue outside the auditorium for the unnumbered seats, the woeful loo... so why go, I hear you cry Constant Reader? Because they keep putting on musicals I want to see - goddamn them!
The latest is the 2006 Broadway musical GREY GARDENS with a score by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie and a book by playwright Doug Wright. The musical is based on the 1975 film documentary of the same name directed by the Maysles brothers which told of the eccentric mother and daughter Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and Edith Bouvier Beale who lived in a collapsing, derelict East Hampton house that had been the family home when they were rich socialites.
What excited the American media was that these former socialites, now almost as feral as the cats and raccoons making Grey Gardens their home, were the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy - how could it come about that relatives of one of the richest women in the world could be living in squalor? 'Big' Edie and 'Little' Edie lived together as they both felt that the other couldn't survive without the other, trapped in a squabbling relationship but one that was based on unspoken need.
Interestingly 'Big' Edie also had two sons who had grown away from the Grey Gardens set up and who constantly asked their mother to sell the crumbling mansion and move away but she refused to leave the home where she had once ruled the roost and given private recitals as she was an amateur singer. 'Little' Edie had lived in Manhattan for a while from the late '40s to the early '50s but with both her love life and attempted acting career non-starters she returned to live with her mother and became locked in a bizarre mix of WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE and HUIS CLOSE.
Their crumbling, larger-than-life personalities made the documentary an underground hit and camp classic which has resulted in this musical which had a success first off-Broadway and then moving to Broadway where it won Tony Awards for Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson along with one for costume design, but it lost out in all the 'big' awards to SPRING AWAKENING.
The show has an intriguing structure which ultimately isn't that successful - the first half takes place in 1941 where young Edie is looking forward to being centre-stage for once as her engagement to Joe Kennedy Jnr is to be announced but it all collapses when she finds out her mother has turned the event into a concert recital, that her father will not be present as he is with his mistress and also that the engagement is called off when her mother intimates to Kennedy that her daughter has been around.
Act 2 zooms us forward to 1973 with mother and daughter living out their bizarre relationship interrupted by their regular visitors, the gardener son of their former butler and a young, monosyllabic slacker who mooches about as a handy-man while quietly stealing from them. 'Little' Edie finally attempts to make the break but ultimately returns: back to mother, back to the house...
The problem is that the two acts just don't fit together, you can see what Doug Wright is attempting by showing us the sins of the past that locked mother and daughter into their later relationship but it's all invention - 'Little' Edie was never engaged to Joe Kennedy Jr. - and it's as if you can almost feel Wright working overtime to try and make this non-event play. It's vaguely over-written but seems becalmed.
The show is on surer ground in the second act as anyone who has seen the film knows that this is based on fact, not conjecture. The score which in the first half sounds like standard pastiche musical fare - admittedly good pastiche - settles into something a bit more original with spiky solos and duets.
The second act also is better thanks to the excellent pairing of Jenna Russell as 'Little' Edie and Sheila Hancock as 'Big' Edie. It's a brave actress who goes up against Sheila Hancock but the show hands Jenna Russell an excellent showcase as she also plays the 40-something 'Big' Edie in the first act. It is a mark of director Thom Sutherland that you can see how Russell's 'Big' Edie became Hancock over the years unseen.
Although she has all the possibilities of going totally over-the-top as the uncorseted, itchy, manic, possibly barking mad Edie, Jenna Russell still manages to ground her in reality so her final capitulation to the fact that she will never leave Grey Gardens while her mother lives is very powerful. Hancock of course is excellent, mad as the sea but shading that eccentricity with a knowing quality of 'playing' the decrepit old woman to get what she wants from those around her. But again, in the final moments of the show, Hancock's panicked fear of being alone really hit home.
Thom Sutherland's direction plods through the first act but picks up in the filial confrontations of the second act while Tom Rogers' set design of the crumbling mansion and Jonathan Lipman's costume design give the show a dank and flaky atmosphere. The supporting cast have the good sense to keep out of the way of these two fine performances although, again, Sutherland has drawn a performance from Rachel Anne Rayham that exactly suggests the cracked personality 'Little' Edie will grow into.