“Those on the outside clamouring to get in, those on the inside dying to get out”
The story of Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith Bouvier Beale was immortalised in a 1975 documentary called Grey Gardens. As part of the American aristocracy, insofar as their connections with the Kennedys (their niece/cousin Jackie would become Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis), they held a certain fascination but the discovery that they were living together in squalor, their fortune squandered and their East Hampton mansion overrun with cats, made them appallingly compelling subjects and consequently elevated them to cult status.
That it took someone ‘til 2006 to turn it into a musical feels like a surprise, but Doug Wright’s book, Scott Frankel’s music and Michael Korie’s lyrics are more thoughtfully considered than one might expect – reflected in the success of its Tony-winning Broadway transfer from Off-Broadway – and so it’s only fitting that it is now added to director Thom Southerland’s roster of musical theatre hits at the Southwark Playhouse.
The first half is taken up with a fictionalised account of life in the Bouvier Beales’ heyday in the ‘40s, centring on Little Edie’s reputed engagement to a scion of the Kennedy clan and plays out as rather conventional bio-drama. It’s engagingly performed – Jenna Russell relishing the expansiveness of Big Edie, Jeremy Legat’s pianist having been moved in to paper over the cracks of her crumbling marriage, and Rachel Anne Rayham is a sparky delight as a Little Edie with the world still at her feet – but it’s rather long-winded without delivering much psychological insight.
Which is where the second act succeeds magnificently, beginning with Russell giving one of the performances of her life in ‘The Revolutionary Costume for Today’. We’ve moved on 30 years and full-blown eccentricity has set in. Russell switches to playing a deeply tragicomic Little Edie and Sheila Hancock her now mostly bedridden mother and both women are superb – Hancock spits acidic putdowns as if it’s second nature and Russell is just extraordinary as the deluded younger woman, manic and melancholy in the same breath, magisterial throughout as the twisted symbisois of the relationship between mother and daughter becomes increasingly apparent.
And befittingly, supporting them is a whole raft of talent. Aaron Sidwell doubles excellently as the prim and proper Joseph Kennedy and a down-and-out teenager who befriends the older pairing; Ako Mitchell has criminally little to do but still makes the most of it as two generations of their staff; Lee Proud provides effective flourishes of choreography; and the dynamics of Tom Roger’s imposing mansion design are most thoughtful indeed, too small to contain the extroverts of early on and too large for the introverts that they become, building to a final, magnificent sense of crumbling claustrophobia.
The score is melodically interesting and sounds brilliant – or should that be S-T-A-U-N-C-H, under Michael Bradley’s musical direction and we discover why at the curtain call, as no less than 10 band members emerge, all having combined to create a luscious, fully rounded musicality. And if Grey Gardens is not quite the perfect play, it’s damn well close to the perfect production here, a wonderful example of the sum of its excellent parts increasing exponentially. Mother darling, I’d get booking your ticket now whilst there’s still a precious few remaining.