Review: The Autumn Garden (Jermyn Street Theatre)

An impressive revival production of Lillian Hellman’s fierce 1951 play

I’ve always been fascinated by Lillian Hellman, sharp-witted, hard-drinking, tough-thinking playwright and writer. In her 1940s heyday, she was a feted luminary of the cultural scene, slugging it out with the best.

Blacklisted as a communist in the 1950s, her reputation has suffered many fluctuations since. Her strengths lay in acute social observation and passionately felt politics; she didn’t always strike more universal chords. Even her best plays such as The Children’s Hour (about women destroyed by the accusation of a lesbian affair) and The Little Foxes (about the struggle for a control of a family business) struggle to retain their impact, as they tip over into melodrama and morality. They’ve lasted the course – partly thanks to their great parts for women – but only just.

The Autumn Garden, written in 1951, was her own favourite among her plays, but it has been almost forgotten, even in America. This revival by the enterprising Jermyn Street Theatre represents a rare British sighting.

It’s a fierce work, full of regret and loathing. Hellman gathers together a clutch of people in the autumn of their years, facing the bitter truths of the disappointments of their lives, as they meet over a weekend in a summer boarding house on the Gulf of Mexico.

It’s run by Constance who still carries a torch for Nick, the fiancé who abandoned her and who is now returning after 20 years with his rich socialite wife Nina. Throw into the mix a General who cannot bear his prating wife, a drunk banker who once loved Constance but has grown tired of waiting, a young French girl who is trying to make practical decisions to ensure her safety after the chaos of war, and an old miser who cannot resist speaking the truth however much it hurts and you have the recipe for an evening of sub-Chekovian disillusion and despair.

The trouble is although Hellman can summon the aphorisms – "lonely people talking to each other can make each other lonelier" – she lacks the ability to engender sympathy for her characters. They are acutely drawn, but unlikeable; however valid her portrait of the way pointless interference and failures of courage wreck lives, it’s hard to care about a complex series of events over a three-hour running time.

Anthony Biggs‘ production begins slowly but gathers momentum. He works wonders on the tiny stage with an impressive cast that includes a pitch perfect performance from Mark Healy, as the noxious Nick, destroying all before him in his narcissistic "rampage of goodwill." But there are many impressive contributions: I particularly liked Hilary McLean in the thankless part of the passive Constance, Lucy Akhurst as the grating Rose, and Madalena Alberto as the long-suffering Nina.

The Autumn Garden runs at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 29 October.