Monthly Archives: January 2016





It was gruesome, politically problematic, tragic and heroic and wasteful; it was a turning-point in history. I have written before about how live, (very often fringe) theatre more than any other media has provoked fruitful reflection on the effects of WW1 (that article here, ). Now the Finborough, with its eclectic specialization of long- forgotten or brand-new work, briefly brings back last May’s two-man play written and directed by John Burrows.


Very fine it is too, framed as a tall tale from ex-Tommies busking with banjo and fiddle in the grim broke years after the war. It was a time when homes and jobs for the “heroes” failed to materialize and Lloyd George’s government genuinely feared a revolution to mirror the Bolsheviks who halfway through had taken the Tsar’s Russia out of the war.
David Brett and Gareth Williams are the men, bemedalled in a stony outdoor bleakness before a tattered Kitchener poster demanding “another 100,000 men”. Their first number (there are a few, though it is far from being a musical) catches that resigned, upbeat melancholy of WW1 songs. Proudly they identify themselves as volunteers, from the two first years before conscription started, but then embark on the story of one fictional conscript: Private Percy Cotton and his fickle girlfriend at home, Nellie. The yarn covers four years, culminating in an odd involvement in the brilliant, conciliatory government gesture of bringing home one “Unknown Warrior” from the fields of death for a grand, communal funeral at the Cenotaph. The stories interwind: the spiritualist fraud Nellie and her willing seduction by a titled official at the War Office, the bereaved parents of a young officer and their servants, Lloyd George himself in anxiety and calculation during the war and its aftermath.

It is told with remarkable wit, the pair sliding in and out of characters with consummate skill: Brett is often young Percy but becomes the lecherous politico Sir Gregory and – with particularly effective stiff poignancy – the bereaved mother Lady Elizabeth. Williams is a splendidly affected and self-serving Nellie and a host of others. They use no costumes except two tin hats for rapid moves to the trenches, and only brisk narrative moments, but the clarity is exemplary. As for the payoff, Burrows creates a double irony in the first ever Two Minutes’ Silence, and we gasp.

O844 847 1522 to 26 Jan, Sun-Tues only

rating four   4 Meece Rating


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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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