Sunday, 10 January 2016

'Grey Gardens' at Southwark Playhouse

Southwark Playhouse is developing a nice habit of putting on plays and shows that you wouldn't find elsewhere, including UK premieres of America shows like 'Titanic', 'Casa Valentina' and 'Xanadu'. It's done it again with 'Grey Gardens', a Broadway hit a few years ago based on the 70s documentary about the aunt and cousin of Jackie Kennedy Onasis living in squalor in their Long Island home.

It's an odd show to say the least and I don't quite understand it's apparent immense popularity when it's so very American but it's obviously got it's own following. Unless it's the leads that have pulled in the punters - the excellent Jenna Russell and Sheila Hancock. They totally dominate the show, particularly Jenna who can let rip with her comic timing and singing as Young Edie.

It's a play in two parts, with the first half being set in 1941 before the young Edie's engagement party to Joe Kennedy and the second half set in 1973 when the house in in such disrepair that the local authority issues improvement notices to the reclusive mother and daughter that result in national publicity. In the first half Jenna Russell plays the part of the mother and Rachel Anne Rayham plays Young Edie and in the second half Janne plays the role of Young Edie to Sheila Hancock's elderly mother. This means that Jenna is on stage for almost the whole time, playing the glamourous 40s mother or the down at heel 70s middle aged daughter.

I'm not entirely sure what the play is meant to be about. Is it about mother-daughter relationships, a tale of how the mighty can fall or is is trying to shine a light on a particular part of American history? I don't know. The second half was better than the first half, probably because it allowed Jenna to bring out the humour in the piece whereas the first half was a bit poe faced and serious. If it hadn't been for Jenna and Sheila I was considering leaving at half time since I wasn't enjoying the rather cramped production and the smoke from the incessant herbal cigarettes was getting annoying (as well as the band being too loud to hear the words of the songs) but I persevered. And I'm pleased I did.

Jenna lit up the second half with her portrayal of the distinctly odd Young Edie in her middle aged years in her scarves and odd costumes and naive optimism despite the fleas and decrepit house. What's true and what's made up in her world doesn't really matter, it's true when she says or sings it. Sheila was also great as the aged and needy mother and there's a great scene between them at the end when Edie is finally leaving to go back to New York when the mother screams her name and Edie, after a pause, replies, 'Yes mother dear …' and the cycle starts again in the mother -daughter relationship. There is no satisfactory ending, it just goes on.

It was great to see Sheila Hancock on stage again - I wonder what made her take this role? And it's always lovely to see Jenna Russell - I saw her twice last year in 'Di and Viv and Rose' and in the musical 'Songs for a New World' as well as seeing her on Broadway a few years ago in Sondheim's 'Sunday in the Park with George' - and she milks every scene for the comedy element. I wasn't terribly keen on the rather cluttered stage (that you have to walk through to get to the seats) and the band sometimes drowned out the songs (the mics taped to foreheads looked a bit odd too). This is only the first week of the show so I expect they'll be learning lessons as they go along.

I've been to Southwark Playhouse quite a few times in the past few years and particularly enjoyed 'Grand Hotel' and 'Xanadu' last year, both excellent productions, but I can't say I've enjoyed visiting the venue. It seems to pride itself on being amateur and 'real' but a bit of professionalism doesn't hurt. Other venues manage to change the layout of the staging/seating but still have numbered seats so why is that so difficult for the Playhouse? It would save all the queuing and people getting in the way of walking round the front of house. And why does it take so long to pick up tickets or get a drink at the bar? That ought to be basic stuff but seems to be a problem. You put on good shows but the experience is marred by the lack of getting the basics right...

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