Southwark Playhouse, London – until 6 February 2016
Guest Review by Liz Dyer
Sometimes inspiration comes from the most unlikely places. Grey Gardens is a musical based on the critically acclaimed 1975 documentary about former First Lady Jackie Kennedy’s aunt and cousin, Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith Bouvier Beale. Despite their wealthy background and connections, the two were revealed in the 1970s to be living in squalor, their house overrun by stray cats (and other wildlife) and deemed ‘unfit for human habitation’ by the Health Department.
The musical, written by Doug Wright, is divided into two starkly contrasting acts, as it examines the complex relationship between the two women, and how they’ve ended up where they are. In the fictional events of Act 1, the wealthy, glamorous residents of East Hampton mansion Grey Gardens gather to celebrate the engagement of Little Edie (Rachel Anne Rayham) to Joe Kennedy, Jr (Aaron Sidwell). Mother and daughter compete for the limelight as Big Edie (played in Act 1 by Jenna Russell) and her accompanist George Gould Strong (Jeremy Legat) plan to perform a concert for their guests, while her daughter and father (Billy Boyle) look on in dismay. Act 2, which is simultaneously funnier and much, much darker, takes place 32 years later, and finds the two women living alone, with only their memories, their cats, and each other for company.
Jenna Russell gives a stunning performance as both Big Edie in Act 1 and Little Edie in Act 2, where she’s joined by Sheila Hancock, stepping in as a frail but feisty Big Edie. These are two classy performers, and their dysfunctional on-stage relationship is really quite wonderful to watch. But it’s not all about the two stars; Aaron Sidwell is smooth and charming as Joe Kennedy, Jr., Little Edie’s fictional fiancé, and Rachel Anne Rayham becomes a star in her own right as a young Little Edie, laying the groundwork for Russell’s eccentric Act 2 performance.
The adaptation of a documentary to a musical might seem a bizarre choice, but actually it makes perfect sense, as both Edies loved to perform, and in later life had a daily routine of singing and dancing together. Scott Frankel’s music and lyrics by Michael Korie allow the actors to explore the full range of their characters – particularly in Act 2, which begins with the brilliantly bonkers The Revolutionary Costume for Today and closes with the wistful Another Winter in a Summer Town.
Grey Gardens is making its London debut at Southwark Playhouse, having proved a hit in America. But while the story and its characters don’t have the same legendary status here as in the U.S., it almost doesn’t matter. The true story here is the hilarious and heartbreaking relationship between a mother and daughter, who fight ‘like two fish wives’, and yet have an unbreakable bond that keeps them together despite everything.
It’s always a bit nerve-wracking as a reviewer to go and see a show that everyone’s been raving about, but this fantastic and beautifully performed musical more than deserves all the praise that’s being heaped upon it, and I can’t recommend it enough.