Grey Gardens continues at Southwark Playhouse, London until 6 February.
Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
By now, we are all used to musical theatre plundering cinema’s back catalogue to find stories. We are less used to those stories coming from documentaries rather than works of fiction. Grey Gardens was a 1975 documentary chronicling the lives of an eccentric mother and daughter living in a crumbling mansion in the otherwise affluent East Hampton, Long Island area of New York state. Once members of the moneyed elite – they were cousin and aunt to Jacqueline Bouvier, who went on to marry first John F. Kennedy and then Aristotle Onassis – now, all they had were each other and the numerous stray cats and other animals who had taken up residence in a house which was falling to rack and ruin.
The pair’s vocal mannerisms and ramblings helped the original documentary become a true cult classic. But while it is a remarkable character study, there is not enough narrative content to justify a full-length musical based solely on its contents. So musician Scott Frankel, along with lyricist Michael Korie and book writer Doug Wright, fabricate an Act I set in 1941, when the Bouviers were at the height of their powers.
Their creation is a well-crafted, MGM-style musical of families for whom marriages are as much about power and ambition as they are about love. Little Edie (Rachel Anne Rayham) is about to celebrate her engagement to Joe Kennedy (Aaron Sidwell), John Fitzgerald’s older brother – as long as her eccentric, performance-obsessed mother does not frighten him away.
As Edith Bouvier Beale, Jenna Russell cuts a fine comic figure, with hints of mania occasionally flickering to the surface before being pushed away with a smile and a song. Jeremy Legat provides a waspish foil to both Edith and Edie as the live-in pianist whose lines are as dry as his morning cocktails, while Billy Boyle’s turn as Edith’s father portrays an eccentric patriarch whose charms conceal a harsh rule, and whose influence clearly played out in both Edith and Edie’s later lives.
In this first act, Frankel and Korie’s songs feel exquisitely of the period without ever descending into pastiche. ‘The Five-Fifteen’, about how Edith must get everything in order before her husband arrives on the evening train, is full of both witty rhymes and sly comedy, while also hinting at Edith’s disconnection from reality. There is also a jaw-droppingly brazen send-up of white Americans’ casually insensitive racism, with Edith performing a piece of minstrelsy that stops just short of blackface as her black butler (Ako Mitchell) looks on.
As Act I progresses and young Edie’s engagement both approaches and feels like it is slipping away, Rayham and Sidwell come into their own, with men’s expectations of their wives playing out against Edie’s desire for her own independence.
If Act I were a full length musical, it would be a fine piece, evocative of an era while touching on topics that the coy 1940s may only have hinted at. But where Grey Gardens elevates beyond that is in a complete tonal shift in Act II.
Moving forward to the early 1970s with Edith (now played by Sheila Hancock) and Edie (Jenna Russell once again) alone in their crumbling mansion, much of the dialogue and situation is lifted from the original documentary. And there is an air of stagnant melancholy hanging over the couple, even as Russell in particular delivers a superb comic performance.
Hancock’s Edith, often off with the fairies, veers between affection for young neighbour-cum-handyman Jerry (Aaron Sidwell in a remarkable second role) and fears about her future and that of the house. In portraying combinations of strength and vulnerability, Hancock has few equals and she is on top form here.
The isolated nature of Edith and Edie’s personalities make musical numbers harder to weave into the narrative than in Act I, so we have occasional fantasy scenarios, from send-ups of wartime pep songs to full gospel choirs. Such diversions are handled well, director Thom Southerland and choreographer Lee Proud ensuring that they always supplement the two main characters’ story rather than divert from it.
And as Russell’s Edie continues to struggle with her desire for independence and its conflict with her duty to family, we are left with a musical which is incendiary in its power, and a performance which demonstrates that Jenna Russell is one of the most engaging actors to watch. But Grey Gardens’ true accomplishment is that it provides an insight into two people’s lives who, through the fictional prism of musical theatre, emerge more real than before.
* Look out for our forthcoming interview with the writers of Grey Gardens – Scott Frankel (music), Michael Korie (lycis) and Doug Wright (book).