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Review: The Chalk Garden (Chichester Festival Theatre)

Enid Bagnold's play is revived as part of the venue's 2018 season

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Penelope Keith in The Chalk Garden
© Catherine Ashmore

At first sight, it's easy to see why this play would be popular with the Chichester audience. Written by Sussex-based playwright Enid Bagnold, set in a genteel country house where most of the cast are middle-aged (and older) and gardening is a central theme – there must have been a few heads nodding sagely at the description of the travails of planting in chalky soil.

The story of the mysterious Miss Madrigal arriving at a country house to help nurture an army widow's disturbed grandaughter is a simple one. On the other hand, it's also easy to see why it's a play that has fallen out of fashion. The troubled pyromaniac teenager seems rather staid for a world that was set to rock around the clock in a '50s Britain about to be shaken by the Suez crisis. Modern parents wrestling with their own problematic offspring would fervently wish for one as well behaved as this.

There are several plays struggling to get out here: is it a psychological drama, examining the complexities of family relationships? Is it a well-mannered drawing-room comedy? Is it a play about redemption and healing? Despite some comic lines, the different parts never seem to fit easily together.

Director Alan Strachan brings some sort of order to the piece, wresting every last ounce of comedy and capturing the sterility of life in a fading country house. Plaudits too for Simon Higlett's elaborate and intricate set, an inspiring mix of disorder and opulence.

The cast of The Chalk Garden
© Catherine Ashmore

In a world with a shortage of prime female roles, particularly for older women, it's good to see a play with such a rich seam of female characters. Penelope Keith enjoys herself hugely as the haughty Mrs St Maugham, milking every nuance of Bagnold's bon mots, but at the same time capturing the vulnerability of a woman clinging onto her grandaughter as a way of holding some sort of control.

Amanda Root, however, is equally strong as the mysterious Miss Madrigal. She brings an air of determination to the part, ready to fight her charge's corner but still hinting at the pain of her former life. Completing the trio of strong female parts, Emma Curtis captures the gaucheness of the teenage Laurel, while maintaining an air of playfulness. There are good performances too from Oliver Ford Davies as an elderly judge and Matthew Cottle as the crime-obsessed, harassed valet.

Despite the excellence of the acting and some genuinely funny lines, it's a strangely unsatisfying play. A later performance will be linked to a chalk gardeners' question time: I suspect that will be a huge hit.