GREY GARDENS Southwark Playhouse, SE1



Hot on the heels of THE DAZZLE (about the New York Collyer brothers living in hoarderly squalid isolation) this is about Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter Little Edie half a century later, living in even more eccentric squalor in the Hamptons. Both interpret true stories. Even more thematically satisfying for the playgoer, no sooner has Imelda Staunton bowed out as Mama Rose dominating her daughter in Gypsy, than we can contemplate the equally showbiz- thwarted Edith senior sabotaging hers. Delusion, eccentricity, toxic but irresistible family bonds, musical obsession and memory: great themes, played out with satisfying difference on stages either side of the Thames.


GREY GARDENS is inspired by a 1975 cult documentary, exposing the reclusive lives of the first cousin and aunt of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. Indeed “Little Edie”, who had a sort of cabaret career, became a cult herself, camp fancy-dress often referencing her dashingly chaotic outfits and the headscarf she wore after reportedly setting fire to her hair. In the opening moments of Scott Frankel’s musical (book by Doug Wright) an announcer sententiously intones “How could American royalty fall so far, so fast?…”

Far indeed. There’s a wonderfully distressed, atmospheric wooden set (by Tom Rogers) of rafters, gallery and prop rubbish including a fallen chandelier, birdcage rubbish and broken mementoes. Moody lighting and echoing sounds evoke the broken-down house at Grey Gardens with its 52 cats and feral raccoons in the attic. Squalid, yet the pungent personalities and insouciant one-liners of the women make it weirdly liberating. When Edie complains that the health authority keeps putting leaflets through the door about the mess and is thus just adding to it, you’re on her side.



We glimpse this 1970’s world first, Sheila Hancock like an old lion beneath a great mane of grey hair and Jenna Russell as the daughter in the first of her barmy outfits, calling the cats. But during the first song it becomes 1942 and Jenna becomes the mother, quarrelling with a younger Little Edie (Rachel Anne Rayham sprightly in daring pink culottes) over how many songs Mama can inflict on the girl’s engagement party to Joe Kennedy Jnr. . The real Edie, by the way, used to claim she would have married Joe and been first Lady if he had not been killed; in sober fact she barely knew him. But for the fiction the romance is solid: Aaron Sidwell perfect as the smart young airman his family planned to be the first Catholic President: “Me and the old man mapped it out. First pick up some medals overseas..” then the Senate.


The lovers sing happily, but the rackety glamour of Edith senior is a threat: poor Edie protests “the parents of the groom are a li’l bit formal, let them think that we are normal..”. Sure enough her match is torpedoed by the mother’s “proud” account of Edie’s past; to ram the point home, Billy Boyle as old Bouvier instructs his schoolgirl granddaughters Jackie and Lee: “Hit hard, little girls, marry well!”. and excoriates Edith’s pianist George Gould Strong, as “an unsavoury fella, tickles the ivories with fingers as white as a ten-dollar whore”.
Michael Korie’s lyrics are witty, sharp, every song to the point: Thom Southerland, nonpareil director of fully-staged big studio musicals, keeps it roaring along with a nine-piece swing band above. The exuberant rebelliousness of Russell’s Edith senior underlines the theme of the price paid by female eccentricity. Little Edie, eager still for a normal marriage, is part of that price: doomed both by expectations of “aristocratic responsibility” and by her mother’s delusion that her own marriage is solid, though really “marriage is for tax codes and morons, not free spirits like us”.

And so to Act 2, 1972 and the pair living as social outcasts in a cloud of flea-powder and cat hairs, eating erratically, bickering, uttering the deathless one-liners with which the real Bouvier-Beales entranced the documentary makers, plus some sharp lyrics (“I had a life I thoroughly enjoyed – an absent spouse and cats to fill the void”.) Sometimes the first half’s characters reappear : as cats, as ghosts, as dreams swirling in the dim light. Sidwell becomes the vague helpful teenage Jerry who wanders in to eat sweetcorn and mend things. Jenna Russell’s Little Edie, only half-immersed in the twilit world her mother enjoys, yearns for freedom but can’t break out; they bicker but depend on one another.


Not a happy life, though not as grim as The Dazzle: strong flavoured individuality and sour wit make even its darker moments provoke a laugh or a cheer. Russell carries the heavier burden – the final, heartbreaking lament and heroic moment. But it is Sheila Hancock, triumphantly grimy and defiantly dishevelled in the bug-ridden bed, who becomes a kind of queen. The cast found it hard to stop the audience roaring for more curtain-calls. Another smash for the Southwark.

Box Office: 020 7407 0234 to 6 feb

rating four 4 Meece Rating


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