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Review Round-up: Donmar Chalk Garden Blooms

Enid Bagnold’s Fifties West End comedy The Chalk Garden received its first major London revival in over 30 years in a production opened last night (11 June 2008, previews from 5 June) at the Donmar Warehouse, where it’s directed by artistic director Michael Grandage and runs until 3 August (See News, 31 Oct 2007).

In a manor house by the sea where the flowers struggle to grow, 16-year-old Laurel runs wild. As her eccentric grandmother Mrs St Maugham tends to the garden, Laurel’s need for love forces her into a fantasy world, but things begin to change with the appointment of mysterious new governess, Miss Madrigal.

John Gielgud directed Edith Evans and Peggy Ashcroft in the critically acclaimed West End premiere at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in 1956, the same year that John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger famously launched a very different theatrical era of working-class kitchen sink drama and “angry young men”. Author Enid Bagnold remains best known for her 1935 novel National Velvet. The titular garden was inspired by Bagnold’s own at North End House in Rottingdean.

At the Donmar, Margeret Tyzack stars as Mrs St Maugham, Penelope Wilton as Miss Madrigal and Felicity Jones as Laurel, with Steph Bramwell, Linda Broughton, Suzanne Burden, Jamie Glover and Clifford Rose also in the cast. The production is designed by Peter McKintosh.

Overnight reviews were very favourable, with the performances of leading ladies Margeret Tyzack and Penelope Wilton coming in for particular praise. Tyzack was labelled a “joy from start to finish” as the redoubtable Mrs St Maugham while Wilton’s take on the enigmatic governess Miss Madrigal was heralded a “masterpiece of economy”. But the real cause célèbre of the critics was the rediscovery of this “neglected stage masterpiece” thanks to Grandage’s “delectable” production. Bagnold’s writing had the same effect on critics last night as it did on their predecessors over 50 years ago, evoking acclamations such as “extravagantly eloquent”, “irresistibly vivid” and “hauntingly beautiful”.

  • Roger Foss on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “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 … this cracking Donmar revival of her neglected stage masterpiece is a reminder that there always was challenging dramatic life beyond the kitchen sink boys … 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 … Penelope Wilton, brilliantly controlled as Miss Madrigal … 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.”
    • Simon Edge in the Daily Express (five stars) – “Is it a Freudian study of family tensions? Or maybe a comment on the co-dependence between employers and staff? By the end, it looks more like a pitiless portrait of needy old age. It’s part of the play’s wilful perversity, gloriously pointed up by Grandage, that it packs all those disturbing themes under a galloping wit, ties them with a string of bons mots, and tops the lot with an unresolved tease about murderers in the midst. Tyzack is a joy from start to finish, using eyebrows, teeth and quivering chin to flip from glowering gorgon to girlish coquette, via withering sotto voce asides; this is an award-worthy turn. Wilton is much lower key, but the hint of inner terrors behind her stoic exterior is beautifully poignant. Jones is manic enough to suggest real damage behind the brattiness, while Jamie Glover and Linda Broughton provide strong support as the highly-strung manservant and a scene-stealing applicant. I came away dizzy with delight from this brisk, breathtaking theatrical oddity. I’d happily see it again tonight.”
    • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) – “I have never much warmed to Enid Bagnold's play: what others call its high comic style sounds to me arch, precious and exhibitionist. But, if this 1956 Haymarket hit is to be revived, I cannot imagine a snappier or more sensitively acted version than that by Michael Grandage … Tyzack sails through the play like a stately warship firing on all and sundry. But under the tart, dismissive putdowns - such as asking her daughter ‘How can you wear beige, with your skin that colour?’ - Tyzack shows that Mrs St Maugham is a sad, solitary relic as much in need of rescuing as her grand-daughter … Grandage's discovery of a sub-textual emotional truth is confirmed by Penelope Wilton's equally mesmerising performance as Miss Madrigal. First seen silently sitting in a darkened conservatory, Wilton presents us with a woman wreathed in loneliness who has acquired an inner strength through her survival of an unjust murder-charge ... this is typical of a production that takes a play once dubbed ‘the last drawing-room comedy’, and discovers, beneath its ostentatious phrase-making, an unexpected humanity.”
    • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (five stars) – “I was enchanted and amused, amazed and stirred by Michael Grandage’s delectable revival of a more than half forgotten play … Bagnold is set upon subversive mockery of the traditional West End play’s values and behaviour: Jamie Glover’s temperamental young butler, Maitland, quivers with nervous hysteria, induced by a prison spell for conscientious objection. Felicity Jones’s Laurel, a dedicated, teenage pyromaniac, lays claims to have suffered sexual abuse at a tender age … Rich enough to afford contempt for convention St Maugham has no qualms in offering the governess’s role to Penelope Wilton’s fascinating Miss Madrigal, a woman with no references at all and an air of enigmatic, brooding calm. But why worry? For the new governess knows how to restore the chalk garden of the title — unfortunately not glimpsed in Peter McKintosh’s design — to flourishing life … ‘I have made such a muddle of the heart,’ Mrs St Maugham concedes in the ironic finale, her granddaughter handed back while she is left with Madrigal and her chalk garden, both women damaged but undaunted. A hauntingly beautiful, dark comedy.”
    • Sam Marlowe in The Times (four stars) – “The setting, a shabbily genteel conservatory in a Sussex manor, might appear to promise a dated and desiccated comedy of manners, but the play drips with juice and is stuffed with plum parts for the mouth-watering cast. Margaret Tyzack, whose command of stage space and tart way with a bon mot are awe-inspiring, is Mrs St Maugham, the self-dramatising eccentric elderly lady of the house, which looks out over a recalcitrant garden cursed with ungenerous chalky soil … Bagnold’s writing is extravagantly eloquent and irresistibly vivid. Describing her mother, whom she hates for remarrying after her father’s death and for her emotional reticence, Jones’s blazing-eyed Laurel says she’s ‘so overloaded with sex that it sparkles. She’s golden and striped, like something in the jungle.’ The words ooze burgeoning feminine sensuality … The play could hardly be better served than it is by these actors. Wilton’s Miss Madrigal is a masterpiece of economy. Her face drawn, her eyes filled with pain and intelligence, her every movement imbued with the taut hesitancy of one who is accustomed to living under surveillance. Tyzack is magnificent: bitchy, charming, manipulative and, in the end, despite all pretence, a terrified and lonely old lady.”

      - by Theo Bosanquet

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