I have never seen the seminal 1973 documentary, Grey Gardens. After an evening at Southwark Playhouse, however, I know my life is incomplete until I do. I need to know exactly where the hell what I’ve just been watching came from.
Who on earth were Edith Bouvier Beale? Note the plural; there are two Edith Bouvier Beales – mother and daughter – whose love-hate-love relationship we suspect is more exquisitely painful for us than them. They have, after all, had a lifetime to get used to it.
Sheila Hancock is EBB Snr, living with her middle-aged daughter Jenna Russell at Grey Gardens, the once swanky family home in East Hampton. They are aunt and first-cousin to Jacqueline Bouvier-Kennedy/Onassis, but this, despite the fact a young Jacqui-O appears in the show, is by-the-by. These two ex-socialites have turned their jaded backs on society with a small ‘s’ as well as Society of the High variety. They live in squalor, threadbare minks and unflattering swimsuits in a decaying, 28-room mansion the local authority have described as unfit for human habitation. The pair have been outed by the National Enquirer and Questions Have Been Asked.
Hancock and Russell attack Edith Bouvier Beale, Big and Little, head-on.
Loneliness, frustration, loss, anger and sordid creativity rule their lives, a treadmill existence of everyday cruelty, cats, raccoons, filth and hankering for a past that may or may not have seen greatness of sorts.
While Hancock’s Big Edie rules Grey Gardens with a sly passive aggression, it is Russell’s extraordinary, damaged Little Edie that lingers. A Frankenstein’s monster of characters, her splintered personality comes through even in her mangled accent, of twisted vowels and infinitely changing cadences.
Upside-down skirts, holey tights and jumpers for headgear, Little Edie yearns for individuality, however it is to be found. Her desperation for an audience is both haunting and pitiable, yet somehow impressive in its conviction.
While deeply melancholy, the manipulator/manipulated relationship with her mother is also laugh-out-loud funny. Her best song The Revolutionary Costume for Today sees her discussing her bizarre wardrobe with the audience in a voice at once detached and knowing.
Edie knows full well how she comes across – at one point she says she never wanted her father to come home as he would have had her committed – yet she aches to be the centre of attention by any means necessary.
If you’re a plot-person, this is not the musical for you. A back story of sorts has been bolted on as the first half, though despite some cracking music it somehow doesn’t feel quite ‘true’ – the play itself admits it’s based on ‘both fact and fiction.’ Even as I was watching it I was wondering how much there was of each. Instead, I enjoyed the performances, especially those of Jeremy Legat as a Cole Porter-esque Gould Strong, Rachel Anne Rayham as young Little Edie and Aaron Sidwell as the bolt-upright, far too squeaky-clean Joe Kennedy.
Virtually nothing happens in the second half, and yet it is that part that has both the songs and the best acting (including a now almost unrecognisable Aaron Sidwell as slacker Jerry.)
Scott Frankel and Michael Korie’s music is outstanding, managing that difficult combination of being both complex and hummable. Some of the harmonies are dazzling. The rest of the cast are excellent, but next to Hancock and Russell, can only ever be supportive – this is, effectively, a two-hander. With added cats.
Grey Gardens runs to Feb 6th at Southwark Playhouse.