Southwark Playhouse, London – until 6 February 2016
Making its European premiere, Grey Gardens is a blend of fact and fiction that tells of Edith Bouvier Beale, aunt to and her daughter Edie. What sets this family apart is that the two women were respectively aunt and first cousin to the woman who was to become the world’s First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
Based upon an acclaimed documentary, the show is a cultural fusion that blends Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard with Galton and Simpson’s Steptoe and Son (with just a hint of The Great Gatsby). The first half, set in 1941, describes the patrician ascendancy of the Bouvier Beale family whilst act two pitches forward thirty years, depicting almost unbelievably, the flea-infested squalor to which mother and daughter had descended. Grey Gardens their mansion, now overrun with cats.
The drama of this show is as magnificent as its music, with an ingenious casting conceit. We meet Sheila Hancock, the elderly Edith as the curtain rises, though she is quickly transformed into Jenna Russell who plays (the younger) Edith in act one and (an elder) Edie after the break. Hancock, amongst the finest of her generation, is witheringly contemptuous towards her daughter and yet desperately dependent upon her. She can also sing with remarkable presence – her take on The Cake I Had, a treat.
Russell as Hancock’s younger self, captures the manipulative dominance that was to stifle her daughter’s attempts at love, whilst in playing the 56 yo Edie (brilliantly costumed in an array of scarves suggesting variously cat-woman crossed with a jihadi bride) she also captures the profound love that her character feels for her mother. If the whole thing wasn’t so damnably credible as a dysfunctional family, it would be ridiculous.
And then there’s Jenna Russell’s voice. Virtually peerless in musical theatre and picking on just two of her stunning moments, Russell’s act two opener The Revolutionary Costume For Today raises the roof, whilst her 11 o clock number Another Winter In A Summer Town touches hearts with its perfectly weighted pathos.
It’s not just Russell and Hancock though. Edie in the 1940’s is given a captivating performance by Rachel Ann Rayham, whose Daddy’s Girl, sung with her hopefully intended Joseph P Kennedy is a glorious fusion of music and movement. (Great choreography Lee Proud). Credit too to the remarkable Aaron Sidwell as the young Kennedy. From Loserville, through American Idiot, to now playing JFK’s older brother, Sidwell masters the dynasty’s manicured scion.
Jeremy Legat as Edith’s preppy consort musician George Strong offers another perfect cameo, whilst Ako Mitchell and Billy Boyle in a number of roles complete the adult company. As is her custom, Danielle Tarento has casts as well as produced the show and her work here is flawless.
To be fair though, all the creative team have been surpassed themselves. Tom Roger’s multi layered set is magnificent, Howard Hudson’s lighting again highlighting the subtleties of time and location, Andrew Johnson’s sound design ensures neither note nor word are lost, whilst Michael Bradley’s 10 piece band make Frankel’s complex score a delight.
Tarento and Southerland have never been better and in all honesty there’s not much on offer anywhere in London right now that could top this production. Southwark Playhouse should be rightly proud of Grey Gardens. It is unmissable theatre that demands a transfer.
Runs until 6th February