With filmic attention to minute detail, the Donmar has been transformed into the dishevelled garden room of a 1950s Sussex manor house. Rain-stained windows shed their English country light over fading books and furniture. A long workbench groans under the weight of plant pots and potions, tools and twine. The walls are liberally festooned with decorative plates and wooden-framed prints. Pre-war furniture rests easily on assorted Persian rugs. The air is filled with a dusty calm that verges on madness. Masterfully recreated by the designer Peter McKintosh, this is the home of the eccentric Mrs St Maugham, her pride and joy twofold: her garden and her spoilt sixteen-year-old granddaughter, Laurel.
We have yet to meet the 'family', however. Instead, we are introduced initially to an assortment of prospective housekeepers. Ladies of a certain age and a certain need who are willing to pander to the requirements of a dying breed of well-to-do English gentry. The 'applicants' await their trials-by-references with obvious apprehension. They are ushered by a highly-strung manservant-cum-general-dogsbody, Maitland, whose internment during the War as a conscientious objector has left him a nervous wreck of a man. His unwavering sense of duty towards young Laurel is, nevertheless, his personal salvation.
Despite the advertisements, presumably in The Lady, only one applicant remains to fill the post. That applicant, a certain Miss Madrigal, is no extravert. Her credentials are sparse, her references nonexistent, her small-talk equally nonexistent. Mis Madrigal has one gift: she empathizes with, indeed appears totally to understand, the fictional world constructed by the teenage Laurel. Laurel recognizes a formidable opponent and is intrigued; Miss Madrigal's post is guaranteed.
What follows is a fascinating, at times outrageously hilarious, evocation of 1950s English country-life humour. Enid Bagnold, perhaps better-known to an audience for her film National Velvet (which introduced a very young Elizabeth Taylor to an adoring public), was a writer of immense wit. The Chalk Garden, written and produced in Bagnold's mid-sixties, is a revelation. No wonder Michael Grandage has pounced on this particularly obscure play and directed it with such obvious relish. There is a life-enhancing joy about its simple tale of love and hope. The future and the past may clash in moments of comic genius, but the reality of human existence and suffering simmers beneath the surface.
A fine cast is led by two towering acting strengths. Penelope Wilton plays Miss Madrigal and Margaret Tyzack, Mrs St Maugham. Tyzack blusters around the stage like an aging battleship in full steam. Whether calling incomprehensibly for her misplaced lower set of teeth or shouting abuse at the local fishmonger's son playing cricket in her garden, Tyzack represents the grand dame of British theatre with colonial pride. She meets her match, as well as her horticultural nemesis, in the enigmatic Miss Madrigal. Wilton is at once dark and mildly sinister, whilst at the same time warm and impenetrably vulnerable. When these actors confront each other onstage, there is magic in the air.
Jamie Glover's Maitland, the manservant, is a gem of a role, as he is flustered by the least change to his routine or the least hint of discord. Ever ready to tender his resignation, we know that Maitland has found his life's vocation, indeed his only hope of survival. Glover conjures Maitland's neuroses to a tee. Into the mix is brought Clifford Rose as The Judge, an old flame of Mrs St Maugham's. Rose represents a kind of sanity in this insane world. Even so, he has based his entire career on a charade which sees him 'acting' the role of a fearful tyrant on the bench. In reality, and as he so poignantly admits, he is inevitably only a fallible human being. His fallibility has had some unusual and unexpected consequences which, as we learn, actually prove the personal salvation of the youngest member of the family, Laurel.
The performance of Felicity Jones as the teenage Laurel is, to say the least, astonishing. This obviously young though experienced actor represents the youthful teenager so convincingly, it is almost like seeing Elizabeth Taylor at her pubescent best. Jones bounds around the stage, manipulating her grandmother and poor Maitland, though inevitably in awe of 'The Boss' Miss Madrigal. As a father of teenage daughters, I found Jones's portrayal uncannily real. In consequence, her character's journey, not so much of self-discovery as of discovery of reality, was heart-rending in its sincerity and pathos. Only when 'The Boss' feels impelled enough to intervene can anything change in the relationship between Laurel and her estranged and remarried mother. The transition, in the hands of Jones, is clear and believable and utterly enthralling.
It would be wrong to discuss the subtleties of the plot of The Chalk Garden further. Suffice it to say there are revelations and recriminations, regrets and outbursts. There is also some of the most cutting dialogue which is worthy of Wilde or Bernard Shaw. As commentators have noted, Bagnold is the first non-Irish playwright so clearly to capture a lost class of fading English gentility. Her observation and wit shine forth. This is a play which you will enjoy with a broad grin. At times, you will laugh out loud at the delicious put-owns. In the end, you will feel uplifted by the simple humanity of its message. I'll leave it to the audience member seated behind me to sum up. As the lights faded on the final scene, she mouthed under her breath, "delightful!"
Kevin Quarmby © 2008