Chichester Festival Theatre – until 16 June 2018
Penelope Keith has been playing intimidating women from the upper classes or landed gentry all her life. The withering put-downs, always delivered with immaculate enunciation and impeccable cut-glass accent, and her air of entitlement, are second nature to her. It is, of course, an act, but one which she has made all her own. She does it, once again and quite brilliantly and effortlessly, in Alan Strachan’s slow-moving production of The Chalk Garden which has just opened at Chichester Festival Theatre.
Alas, no amount of raised eyebrow and condescension in the voice can breathe much life into Enid Bagnold’s creaking story of upper-class family strife in mid-1950s Sussex. But you do learn a lot about gardening on chalk which will come in handy if you find asters impossible, struggle with your fussy fuschias and come a cropper with your carrots.
There are also some fine performances from its leading actors. The always watchable Keith may be typecast here as the grande dame, Mrs St Maugham, but her timing, delivery and sheer skill guarantee an engrossing and enjoyable turn by the veteran stage and screen star. The wonderfully coiffured Mrs St Maugham presides over a house with the most splendid garden room (thanks to Simon Higlett’s superb set design). The interior is rather shabby and, we learn later, some rooms of this once imposing country house, are now shrouded in dust sheets. It’s heyday, like its mistress, is long gone and now it is lived in by faded local gentry.
Mrs St Maugham shares her home with her difficult teenage granddaughter, Laurel, an attention-seeker, junior arsonist and fantasist, and, as much as the girl would try the patience of a saint, the old gal clings to her for comfort and companionship. She advertises for a governess to be a companion for Laurel and ends up taking on Miss Madrigal, a bit of an enigma, who comes with no references, a very dour temperament, and no experience.
But it turns out that she is an expert gardener and is soon out in the beds putting them in order and banishing weeds while also building a tentative friendship with the garrulous Laurel.
It soon becomes apparent that the St Maugham family is fractured and at war. Young Laurel won’t live, or even talk, to her own mother, Olivia, angry that her love is now directed away from her to towards a new husband and prospective baby.
Olivia (the brilliant Caroline Harker, sorely underused) has problems with her mother. They can’t talk without having furious rows and communication between the pair has broken down
Things come to a head when the heavily pregnant woman arrives determined to reclaim her daughter from her increasingly possessive mother.
And Miss Madrigal’s secretive past comes back to haunt her with the arrival of Mrs St Maugham’s lunch guest, a judge (Oliver Ford Davies, also being typecast in a legal role that he is so familiar with).
For the first act The Chalk Garden develops and grows slowly, unsure of itself as to whether it is a light comedy or a serious drama, but it picks up, both pace and interest, during a brief growing spurt in the final act.
Penelope Keith’s scenes are always a joy to watch, her dialogue accompanied by lots of gesticulation and droll humour.
Emma Curtis’s Laurel, however, is less damaged and needy, and is, instead, increasingly infuriating.
Laurel may be a lost soul, desperate for love and affection, but here the teen plays to the gallery and really needs some tough love to stop the spoilt brat act.
The well-named Amanda Root makes a formidable Miss Madrigal whose life has been blighted by tragedy and ill fortune and now, by an amazing coincidence, may be about to turn a corner.
Root subtly peels back the layers to her character making her by far the most interesting person in the story.
The Chalk Garden is a pleasant enough play but it needs a good dollop of something rich and nutritious to get it back to looking its best.
It gives audiences an insight into gardening on chalk, and offers fine performances from Penelope Keith and Oliver Ford Davies, but the plot is looking tired and lacks drama.
The Chalk Garden runs in the Festival Theatre until June 16.
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