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The Chalk Garden

Enid Bagnold
Donmar Warehouse
(2008)

Production photo

The Chalk Garden is the kind of play that, starring Edith Evans and Peggy Ashcroft under the direction of John Gielgud, had great success in those heady days before Angry Young Men took over the theatrical landscape a matter of weeks after its West End debut.

It is a well-written, well made work about a household of eccentrics, penned by Enid Bagnold who had launched Elizabeth Taylor's career a dozen years before by writing National Velvet.

The attractions lie in a quirky plot, some almost Wildean aphorisms and three great parts for female actresses of different generations.

It is probably the last of these that persuaded Michael Grandage to revive the 1950s classic that wowed both Broadway and the West End during long runs.

As one might imagine, Penelope Wilton and Margaret Tyzack are both excellent. Pleasingly, Felicity Jones, who made such a strong impression playing a very different role in That Face when it first appeared at the Royal Court, is not embarrassed by the company either.

The opening scene, set in Peter McIntosh's delightfully comfortable conservatory, could almost have been drawn from Mary Poppins, as first young Laurel (Miss Jones), a precocious fantasist, and then her grandmother Mrs St Maugham (Miss Tyzack) scare off would-be companions for the child.

They are swiftly left with no choice but the forthright Miss Madrigal (Miss Wilton). This prim spinster's main selling points are an empathy with her prospective charge, the gardening skills of a born botanist and a quiet desperation.

The house is ruled over not only by the bombastic and totally dotty grandmother but also her dying butler Pinkbell, who invisibly issues wrong-headed orders from his sick-bed on a regular basis.

In reality, it is held together by a manic (comic) manservant, Jamie Glover's Maitland, a former conscientious objector with frayed nerves who dotes on Laurel and hates the dreaded Pinkbell.

Grandage and his playwright have fun during a couple of acts of domestic madness that build to the appearance of an elderly Judge, played by Clifford Rose. This former beau of the hostess heralds a darker tone, at least briefly.

A sudden change comes over the governess, previously garrulous and bossy but instantly introverted into silence by the genial old buffer's arrival.

As talk turns to legendary murder trials, the key plot twist becomes obvious and then perhaps we see the one hint of psychological depth in the evening, as companion and charge (by the end looking about 12 in her Alice band) are shown to have identical personalities.

Where a later playwright might have chosen a shock ending, Miss Bagnold followed conventional morality, showing that her arid characters could, like the symbolic garden of the title, become productive if nurtured and loved a little.

This two hour long, three act drama is hardly cutting edge (and wasn't in 1956) but its subtle humour and some great central performances should attract good audiences to the Donmar.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher