The Autumn Garden at the Jermyn Street Theatre
The cramped auditorium of the Jermyn Street Theatre is currently host to an elegantly appointed new production of American playwright Lillian Hellman’s 1951 chamber play The Autumn Garden. Hellman is perhaps less known than certain of her contemporaries such as Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams, despite the success her work has enjoyed over the years, which is partly due to her being blacklisted by the Hollywood film industry during the anti-communist campaigns of the early 1950s. She herself regarded The Autumn Garden as her best play, but it has rarely been staged, and that is why it’s great to see its inclusion in the Jermyn Theatre’s Classic Writers Season.
Set in a boarding house on the Gulf of Mexico, we follow Constance Tuckerman, the proprietor, who runs it with her young French niece Sophie. She in turn is engaged to be married to Federick Ellis, a man she doesn’t love but whom she hopes will take her away from her dead-end existence with her aunt. Constance is excited for the return of her old lover Nick Denery, an artist now married to the sophisticated Nina. However, scandal erupts when Nick, after declaring in a drunken stupor to Nina that he wants a divorce, is found the next morning asleep in Sophie’s bed.
The production is attractively dressed in hues recalling old cinemascope classics, and although the confined space of the theatre is somewhat claustrophobic, where in order to access the loos you’re obliged to walk through the set, such closeness does heighten the intimacy and suits well a piece where the drama is played out between individuals behind closed doors. The performance itself though comes across as rather stiff and unnatural, which seems partly due to the difficulty for the actors of speaking convincingly in a southern accent.
Mark Healy has the juiciest role as the drunken artist Nick, faintly recalling Paul Newman in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, but the standouts are Madalena Alberto’s cooly elegant Nina, and Lucy Akhurst as Rose, a faded southern belle who also has the funniest lines. Despite the premise the story is rather less than scandalous, at least for today’s standards, yet, for the same reason the play is still a fascinating portrayal of the social mores in post-war Louisiana.
The Autumn Garden is at Jermyn Street Theatre from 5th October until 29th October 2016, for further information or to book visit here.