THE AUTUMN GARDEN Jermyn St Theatre, SW1

AFTER THE WAR WAS OVER…SOUTHERN ACCIDIE..
Lilian Hellman – tough, personally unconventional, a liberal ahead of her time – counted this as one of her favourite works. Most of us admire her more for The Children’s Hour, The LIttle Foxes and her fierce 1940’s anti-fascist writings. This one ran only a few months, and is pretty well forgotten: but Antony Biggs of the Jermyn Theatre specializes in forgotten classics, and has opened many doors into past sensibilities for us.

 

 

 

Having said that, the 1951 play has problems. It is set in 1949, the restless postwar time when society was changing and the deep south – it is set, in a boarding-house near New Orleans – was changing slower than New York and Europe. Gregor Donnelly’s design is on the face of it an intimate drawing-room (everything in the Jermyn is intimate: your feet may be on the very carpet on which emotions are unrolling). It has distressed wallpaper, though, in almost camouflage-colouring, a reminder of that war. As is General Griggs – Tom Mannion – glum in a wicker chair, studying a Chinese grammar and planning to divorce his wife and attempt a new life. She, played with vigorous deliberate absurdity by Lucy Akhurst, has somehow escaped from a Tennessee Williams play: a southern belle past her best, flirting absurdly, the kind of pretty girl a man marries suddenly in a war. As the General sadly says ‘All professional soldiers marry Rose. It’s in the army manual”.

 
In another corner is the pleasingly sour old Mary Ellis (Susan Porrett, sharp as a tack), her overpossessive daughter-in-law Carrie dominating a deeply wet son Frederick; he is engaged, in a lukewarm fashion, to the most mysterious of the group, Sophie: a French waif from Europe, adopted with good intentions by Constance, who runs the boarding-house. Constance is a likeable, layered, gentle performance by Hilary Maclean, a woman who for years has failed to notice the devotion of old Ned, but nurtures a nostalgic affection for her girlhood flame, the truly awful Nick. Who is imminently expected with his wearily fed-up wife Nina.
So there’s a big cast, a complex set of relationships, and a theme of middle aged disillusion poised between tough old age – Mary holding the purse-strings – and youth, represented by wet Fred and Sophie. Ah, Sophie: Madeleine Millar on her first professional job has the most interesting part to play: slight, emitting a rather sour European realism , folding up her face into tight unreadability, world-wearily European, a child of war, she bats off the ultimately disastrous drunken advances of Nick; and finally, in a sharp twist, reveals that she knows perfectly well the vulnerabilities of the affluent Ellises and their Southern fear of “scandal”.

 

 

The trouble is that it doesn’t quite get the grip and pace and complex involvement of such a group which Chekhov can. It does in its centre drag a bit, for all Biggs’ delicate direction and Hellman’s acid sharpness and compassion for failures (Mark Aiken’s Ned has little of interest to do until the end brings a profoundly moving speech about a lost life: MacLean too is memorable then. The second half is the best, though the drunken dissolution of Nick only catches fire in his dealings with the remarkable Sophie. Who is of another world: my favourite line is from absurd, atavistic Southern Rose: “A nice girl woulda screamed!”. Too late. The world was on the move, with or without Louisiana.

 

box office 020 7287 2875 to 29 October
rating three  3 Meece Rating

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