The Chalk Garden

Enid Bagnold
Chichester Festival Theatre
Festival Theatre, Chichester

Penelope Keith as Mrs. St. Maugham Credit: Catherine Ashmore
Amanda Root, Oliver-Ford Davies, Penelope Keith and Matthew Cottle Credit: Catherine Ashmore
Amanda Root and Oliver Ford Davies Credit: Catherine Ashmore

This play has all the ingredients for a rather quirky mystery with the possibility of a murder or murderer included.

Set in 1955 in a village house by the sea in Sussex, Simon Higlett has created a very intricate and spacious garden room where plants take centre stage with the well stocked conservatory in the background and the detritus of gardening, pots and seed packets, scattered around. Here the characters are presented before us, and a strange collection they are.

There is Laurel, an exceptionally precocious young girl who is only ever left alone when in the garden as she is likely to set the house on fire, Maitland, an ex-prisoner manservant who can’t take criticism without tears, and the girl’s grandmother, an overbearingly autocratic, outspoken and obviously wealthy old lady, Mrs. St. Maugham, who loves her garden but is not having much success with it. There is an ancient butler, Pinkbell, who lives upstairs and is never seen, but we hear the essence of his arguments about gardening as he sees it through the window.

Deciding it is time for her granddaughter to have some companionship and education, Mrs. St. Maugham advertises for a companion / governess and four applicants have applied. Three are quickly despatched and the fourth, Miss Madrigal, is also about to be sent on her way as she cannot supply any references when it is discovered she has extensive gardening knowledge and has noticed the plants here are not thriving. “The wind blows from the sea,” she says “growing things must be protected”. Is she referring to girl or garden? Probably both!

The play is semi-autographical in that Bagnold has used many episodes in her own life, embellished them and invented more, and the first act is very wordy so, despite some excellent performances, some gentle comedy, and the fact that there is evidently suspicion of something dark in the previous life of Miss Madrigal, by the interval we are beginning to lose interest.

However director Alan Strachan brings the second act to life as he increases the pace, tension and attentiveness. Amanda Root’s Miss Madrigal is now the strong, sensible rock in Lauren’s life, changing her dress as well as her demeanour, but dark secrets are about to be revealed and conflicts rise up between Mrs Maugham and Lauren’s mother Olivia (an expensively elegant Caroline Harker) when she comes to reclaim her daughter.

Root brilliantly depicts a woman with a past, a grievance, and a feeling of resentment and of injustice, while at the same time an unease and fear that her secret will be revealed. The entrance of Mrs. M’s old friend, a Judge, has her very much on edge although Oliver Ford Davies plays him as an affable, friendly man who, years ago, was positive his decisions were the correct ones. Now, reflecting and having seen a little life outside a court, he is not so sure.

Penelope Keith of course never puts a foot wrong and here as Mrs. St. Maugham manages to overcome the hindrance of a rather unflattering wig to give her usual pitch-perfect performance, but the really poignant moment of the play, and also the moment of really palpable emotion, is between Mrs. St. Maugham and Madrigal, two women, now alone and lonely yet so very different in character, but both respecting the other and finding solace and comfort in each others presence.

A lovely peaceful conclusion to a very gentle 'thriller'.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor