Grey Gardens at the Southwark Playhouse
The intimate and rather minimalist confines of the Southwark Playhouse are a strangely appropriate home for this bizarre story about the decline of American royalty within the titular Long Island estate. Grey Gardens, directed by Thom Southerland, stems from the true story of Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, “Little” Edie, who were discovered to be living with an army of stray cats and racoons in near-poverty; this is all the more shocking considering that they were aunt and cousin to America’s First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy. The two Beales were captured in the classic 1975 documentary of the same name, meaning that this production joins the exclusive group of stage musicals based on cinéma vérité films.
While this may make for a very novel play, it also accounts for the structural flaws in the narrative. The first act focuses on the period of Gatsby-esque gaiety, with the theatrical Edith (Jenna Russell) presiding over a bohemian atmosphere, represented here with her sing-alongs of old American classics, and aided by her flamboyant live-in pianist Gould (Jeremy Legat). This is much to the dismay of her stuffy father, Major Bouvier (Billy Boyle), who desperately sings to his grandchildren to Marry Well in order to restore the Bouvier name. Young Edie (Rachel Anne Rayham) is the sparky ingénue set to leave the nest and land in the arms of dashing Joseph P Kennedy Jr (Aaron Sidwell), the future president’s older brother, but tensions rise over her mother’s refusal to be overshadowed and abandoned. The actors all have great fun with the lively numbers and relish the archaic, upper-crust Manhattan drawl whilst giving a fine sense of the time period.
Yet the act concludes with the older Edith framed as the villain of the piece, albeit a very human and charming one. In the following act, which covers the same period as the film, Edith is incarnated by a bedridden but defiant Sheila Hancock and Russell takes over as the pitiable, adult Edie, replete with head shawl and stranger-than-fiction dress sense. Here the dramatic tension has been unbalanced and despite the two actors’ flawless and richly detailed performances there is little narrative momentum; the play becomes a procession of catty insults and delusional song and dance routines that would make Norma Desmond blush. It’s rather a one-theme premise, the cruel passage of time, and the cast from the first act are repeatedly brought back in for Edie’s musical reminiscences and, perhaps more pertinently, to sustain the play’s length.
Grey Gardens makes you glad to have discovered these fascinating characters and see such vibrant performances, but it doesn’t aim very far afield for an audience, preaching to a small but appreciative choir.
Grey Gardens is on at the Southwark Playhouse from 2nd January until 6th February, for further information or to book visit here.