Review - Grey Gardens (Southwark Playhouse)

Despite it's huge cult following, until about a week ago I had never seen the 1975 Maysles brothers documentary Grey Gardens, nor did I know much at all about the story of the people it followed, however, when it was announced that the tony award winning musical based on the documentary would be playing at the Southwark Playhouse, my interest was piqued, and when a further announcement listed Sheila Hancock and Jenna Russell as the show's stars, I quickly realised that this show would be one to catch!

"Based on the iconic film, Grey Gardens tells the spectacular real life rise and fall of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s aunt and cousin, Edith and Edie Bouvier Beale.

Starting in 1941 at an engagement party at Grey Gardens, the Bouvier’s mansion in East Hampton, Long Island, the musical tracks the progression of the two women’s lives from American aristocrats to reclusive social outcasts living in such squalid conditions, in a home overrun by cats, that the Health Department deemed the mansion ‘unfit for human habitation’."

Firstly, I must say that what immediately struck me about this production, was the amazing intricacy of Tom Rogers' set design. Old, disheveled props lay scattered around the stage throughout the whole performance. It act 1 as the scenes were so brightly lit and the costumes by Jonathan Lipman were so beautifully vintage the dishevelment was downplayed and yet obviously foreshadowed the character's futures, while in the more gloomy atmosphere of act 2, it became rather glaring and repulsive, and perfectly set the tone for the act. Overall, the set was definitely the most striking element of the production, especially given how much semiotic detail was included in such a small set.

However, despite the production's impressive design elements, overall I didn't enjoy Grey Gardens as much as I had hoped I would, and this is mostly down to how flat the show fell in the second act. Fortunately, The first act (a large portion of which I later discovered was fabricated for the show) was enjoyable for the most part, as it gave the audience a glimpse into Edith and Edie Bouvier Beale's pasts. The act was filled with colourful supporting characters such as Edith's charismatic live-in accompanist friend Gould (Jeremy Legat), and Edie's fiance Joseph Kennedy, played charmingly by Aaron Sidwell, whose crooning voice perfectly suited the show's time setting. However, Rachel Anne Rayham and Jenna Russell gave the stand out performances of act 1 as Young Edie and Edith Bouvier Beale respectively. The pair's dynamic was unique and they shared fantastic chemistry as the bickering mother and daughter duo. In short, act 1 was a treat to watch. 

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for act two, which takes place 32 years later in the now dilapidated wreck of Grey Gardens. The plot was disappointingly uneventful, and the story tonally uneven. Sheila Hancock did a good job of conveying the shrunken yet strong physicality of Edith Beale, but due partly to her constantly wistful line delivery, and her seemingly unwillingness to acknowledge the audience the way Jenna Russell did as Edie, her characterisation felt a little off. 

Thankfully, Jenna Russell shone again in act 2, this time as Edie, a slightly delusional yet engaging character. Clad in a a makeshift mini-dress, a headscarf fashioned from a cardigan, and not much else, she dominated the stage and captivated the audience, conveying warmth and humanising the rather outlandish character. Additionally, she was given possibly the best songs in the show, including the hilarious act 2 opener The Revolutionary Costume For Today. All in all though, the music was rather unmemorable for the most part, which is perhaps another reason why I never really warmed to the show. 

Despite the fact that the story was tragic and thought provoking and the cast was fantastic, I sadly felt myself let down by Grey Gardens. It'll be interesting to see if it has a life beyond the Southwark Playhouse, as the current run is completely sold out, but honestly I think that this musical may really only appeal to those who were already fans of the documentary.