Hands up those who still believe that the West End in the 1950s was home to self-consciously cosy middle class dramas until the disgruntled Angry Young Men turfed them out. Well put them down.
Just weeks before John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger premiered at the Royal Court in 1956, Enid Bagnold’s The Chalk Garden opened at the Theatre Royal Haymarket and although Fifties New Wave fury was never Bagnold’s style (her most popular work had been the girl-loves-horse novel National Velvet), this cracking Donmar revival of her neglected stage masterpiece is a reminder that there always was challenging dramatic life beyond the kitchen sink boys, even when the action takes place in a middle-class drawing room dominated by a disturbed young woman.
At the time, Kenneth Tynan recognised “the finest artificial comedy to have flowed from an English pen… since the death of Congreve”. And today it’s quite startling to discover for the first time this flagrantly cryptic but fragrantly feminine tragi-comedy about a mysterious governess, Miss Madrigal, and the effect her arrival has on wealthy widow Mrs St Maugham and her troubled teenage granddaughter Laurel in a dysfunctional household dominated by the dated strictures of an unseen bed-bound family butler.
Admittedly, at first glance, Michael Grandage’s production, with its solid Sussex manor house conservatory setting and cast list of middlebrow characters, feels as if you’ve walked straight into a genteel theatrical comfort zone from a long-lost West End era, but director and cast ensure that Bagnold’s gallery of anxious eccentrics are all firmly rooted in emotional reality, even if they do tend to communicate with each other in an often hilarious mix of no-nonsense directness and sly artificiality. When, for example, Margaret Tyzack’s magnificently vinegary Mrs St Maugham, stoutly refuses to answer the door because “one is not at one’s best through mahogany”, it’s a line that could have come straight out of Joe Orton.
The play is also packed with so many gardening metaphors about the infertility of Mrs St Maugham chalky coastal patch mirroring the loveless lives indoors that it sometimes seems like a lesson in how to cultivate plants in unyielding soil. But Grandage never muddles the metaphors and digs deep down into the subsoil of Bagnold’s story of unfulfilled women teetering on a barren edge. And the acting is surely as good as it gets.
Penelope Wilton, brilliantly controlled as Miss Madrigal (the nanny with a guilty secret buried in her past but also possessing enough positive “soil magic” to turn futility into fertility), is the perfect foil to Tyzack’s awesome Mrs St Maugham, a preposterous old grouch who we discover is actually more in need of a hug from nanny than the sexually precocious pyromaniac Laurel (played with scary-eyed adolescent intensity by Felicity Jones), who is finally reconciled with her own flighty mother (Suzanne Burden). Perhaps not surprisingly, the men in the piece – Clifford Rose’s high court Judge, Jamie Glover’s manservant, the unseen dying butler – are either in denial, bi-polar neurotic or just plain impotent. But more than 50 years on, this garden is a seductive place to visit.