Grey Gardens

Dom O'Hanlon
Dom O'Hanlon

The whole world it seems is currently hooked on Netflix's powerful documentary 'The Making of a Murderer' in which the audience is taken through a murder case which may or may not be a miscarriage of justice due to an apparently inept legal system and accusations of twisted cops. Whilst it shares little similarity in terms of content, Albert and David Maysles' 1976 documentary about the decline of the Bouvier Beales on which the 2006 musical 'Grey Gardens' is based shares the exact same sense of complete and utter invasion of a small and isolated corner of American society that would otherwise remain untouched. Whilst the former has become an internet sensation, the latter was passed round on video tapes between friends and shown at midnight screenings, but has still managed to enter the cultural psyche, with 'Little' Edie cementing her place in pop culture.

Documentaries it would seem have the ability to capture the public's admiration, but Scott Frankel, Doug Wright and Michael Korie's musical stands (almost) alone as one of the only serious musical adaptations of the form. It's a show of two distinct halves, with the second act borrowing exclusively from the documentary itself, with Jenna Russell as 'Little' Edie and Sheila Hancock as her mother 'Big' Edie existing amongst the squalor and cats, complete with favourite lines and moments from the film. The first half however is a fictionalised 'flashback', offering reason and meaning to the second, with Russell starring as a younger version of 'Big' Edie on the verge of everything going wrong.

Thom Southerland's genius production does something that the Broadway production wasn't able to do - bring together and combine the harshly different first and second act into one carefully curated and thoroughly successful narrative. The two acts couldn't be more different in form and style - the first takes the structure of a very traditional book musical and has the effervescent air of 'High Society' in which an aristocratic family gather together to announce the engagement of the eldest daughter, Edith Bouvier Beale to Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr. The eccentricities feel somewhat harmless, with an added sense of dramatic irony as a young Jaqueline Bouvier gambles around the house, and is warned by Major Bouvier to "Marry Well" in order to succeed at life. We're introduced to 'Big' Edie (the eccentric mother who is harshly described as an "actress in need of a stage") and the Young 'Little' Edie, and their tensions that will go on to shape both of their lives, and ultimately bring them closer together.

The two acts achieve synthesis thanks to some outstanding direction and careful scenography from designer Tom Rogers, who creates a post-modern stage space that blends the needed naturalism of the domestic setting with expressionistic flash-forward to the house in disrepair. This single unit set binds the acts and characters whilst emphasising the tragedy in both Edie's inability to see their future and exactly what is in front of their eyes, making the shift all the more harrowing and determined. This decision in my mind aided the material to such an extent that I would go as far as to describe it as a definitive approach, dramaturgically solving one of the musical's key inherent problems.

I remain in complete awe at everything Jenna Russell achieves onstage throughout this production, and she delivers a virtuoso performance that is laden with subtleties, wit and intelligence. She dodges the minefield of caricature throughout the second act so successfully that I felt I was discovering Little Edie for the very first time. A master of comic timing and delivery, she humanises every second of the eccentric character, which often quotes verbatim from the documentary, whilst managing a specific accent, mannerisms and an utterly bizarre, yet perfectly realised wardrobe. Whilst her second act performance had me gripped, I found myself blown away by her portrayal of Big Edie throughout Act One in a way I've never previously been. Nothing short of a triumph.

The reigns of Big Edie are picked up successfully by Sheila Hancock in the second act who continues the character's emotional arch yet allows her to be seen through different eyes. The characters become bound by their context, and the pair successfully balance the share of 'blame' in each other's fates, and as a result you don't find yourself resenting one or the other.

Rachel Anne Rayham as Young 'Little' Edie is nothing short of a revelation. She absorbed and foreshadowed both the style and mannerisms of the character alongside a powerful and characterful voice. She is ably supported by Aaron Sidwell's Joseph Kennedy Jr., who in turn manages an effective transformation as he returns as Jerry in Act Two, balancing both mother and daughter and providing sufficient moments of tension.

Scott Frankel and Michael Korie are without a doubt two of the finest writers working in musical theatre today. Frankel manages to blend parody and pastiche alongside an original musical voice which suits both moment and behaviour so remarkably well that the transition between speech and song are seamless and consistently unobtrusive. He blends soaring melodic lines with characteristic musical passages that respond to and sound remarkably 'of' each character in a way that few musical theatre writers ever achieve. He is aided considerably by Korie's smart, yet never showy lyrics that use the idiolect of each character whilst at the same time feel suitable for the genre. His ability to surprise the listener is matched only by his ability to respond effectively to a character's need in a particular moment, something that is shown explicitly in the Act Two climax "Around the World".

Producer Danielle Tarento has raised the game for fringe productions and brought together a highly talented cast and creative team that outshines any musical currently running in the West End. This has clearly been a labour of love for all involved, and not a corner has been overlooked - from the glorious ten-piece band to the utterly impressive production management that keeps track of countless props and set pieces amongst the organised chaos of the Hamptons mansion. In a venue that continues to score success after success, 'Grey Gardens' is the jewel in the crown for this producer-director collaboration and London theatre is all the luckier for its existence.


s a great-looking, brilliantly performed piece ... My only qualm about The Play That Goes Wrong is that in getting their play so dreadfully wrong night after night, they are also getting it absolutely right."
Tim Walker for The Telegraph

"Its not sophisticated and its certainly over-extended; the shows one-act Fringe origins arent hard to spot. Yet, along with the rest of the enthusiastic audience, I laughed continually. Director Mark Bell also offers some ingenious, not to mention precision-drilled, physical comedy."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard

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