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Brighton Year-Round 2021

Low Down

Directed by Jacqui Freeman, Set Designer Tim Freeman,  built by Keith Gilbert and David Rankin; Specialist Construction Jon Plimmer. Light and Sound Trevor Morgan. Costumes Claire Chapman, Stage Manager Joanne Cull. Production Photography Keith Gilbert and Phil Gazzard. Till October 9th.


Last time Enid Bagnold’s 1955 The Chalk Garden was presented at LLT, it came straight from their acquiring the amateur rights for a new play, not too long after LLT did the same with Waiting for Godot. Heady days.

Bagnold’s often known for two things. Her 1937 play National Velvet midpointed a professional career that spanned seventy years including her breakthrough wartime memoir Diary Without Dates in 1917; and her pride at taking Frank Harris as her first lover. ‘Sex is the very gateway to life’ Harris noisily declared. Bagnold’s riposte is treasurable: ‘So I went through the gateway in a room of the hotel above Charing Cross Station.’

Experience, sexual and otherwise, is a key topic in this revival of The Chalk Garden. Bagnold here is even more interesting than these still-revealing anecdotes.

It’s a not very quietly feminist play whose manner is hopelessly pre-1956, served with hot servants. Yet that’s the year it opened in the UK after its Broadway triumph, cheek-by-scowl with Look Back in Anger. In another way it’s quietly revolutionary and this must be kept sight of. Its doubleness is one of its subversive glories, a Janus-faced god swinging on their own door enough to crack hinges. Yet at the same time it almost needs rescuing from itself.

Born November 1889, Bagnold’s liberated New Woman echoes her most interesting dramatic character, Miss Madrigal. Stuck in The Chalk Garden with Mrs St Maugham and her arsonist-seeming granddaughter Laurel, Madrigal’s life quietly throbs with elsewhere.

It revolves around military widow St Maugham’s attempts to make her granddaughter and rhododendrons grow in the same chalky soil; and the green-fingered new governess’s attempts to replant the one and transplant the other. A clash of symbolisms.

Tim Freeman’s set is another character, an LLT triumph. A single-set drawing room with lime-striped wallpaper and wooden panels below, it  features various doors, an elaborate white staircase stage right, upstage centre a beautifully-lit double-arched glassed conservatory in white, perspective-fading greens outside: a stunning feat. There’s a sofa centre-stage, a bookcase left upstage, various tables, Persian rug.

It’s south-coast Chekhov replete with servants and poorer relations. Trevor Morgan’s lighting plays on a bright south-coast feel to the day too, blazing in through the conservatory, June to August. Claire Chapman renders most costume simple save Olivia’s second appearance in splendid deep blues, and the Third Lady’s silver-blue attire. Morgan’s choice of music intros Britten’s Simple Symphony, then – evoking another coast – the first three of the Peter Grimes Sea Interludes, with a burst of the opera itself.

Director Jacqui Freeman explores an amplitude, a breathing set of pauses Bagnold indicates, allowing characters room. In this she echoes Ayckbourn specialist Alan Strachan in his almost-as-unhurried 2018 Chichester revival. Like Strachan, you wish Freeman might clip some meaningful pauses, up the pace of this two-hours-twenty traversal. One reason is Bagnold’s play – pace Bagnold – needs it. One caveat in an otherwise sure-footed approach. Freeman though tweaks things cleverly.

Bagnold’s play opened in the U. S. since Irene Selznick hammered and collaborated with Bagnold on compressing it. There’s a clue to occasional non-sequitors and loose ends: brutal edits. It’s been revived recently by Michael Grandage in 2008, and as we’ve seen at Chichester in 2018.

A lack of economy might inhibit though. At the start there’s two applicants (strange beings of ‘Brighton and Hove’) for the post of granddaughter‘s governess: Jennifer Henley’s chattery faux-innocent kleptomaniac Little Lady (later an exasperated Nurse) or Anna Crabtree’s Third Lady, fantastically-light-blue-attired day-tripping snob who vanishes after sixty seconds. It’s indulgent of Bagnold. Henley and Crabtree provide excellent cameos. You feel they’re wasted.

It allows Esther Egerton’s Miss Madrigal, quietly sitting, to pronounce on them, revealing a piercing shrewdness.

Egerton’s quietly emphatic Madrigal is the reason to see this play. Often facing away from others – the reason becomes clear – she initially seems too quiet. When Madrigal’s asked to speak up you then see Egerton’s force. Keeping her range of expression focused, forcing others to engage at her decibels, Egerton’s Madrigal never falters till alone with the Judge, a pivotal character who arrives later. Then Egerton unleashes the passions and force the Judge had once recognized. Madrigal second-guesses, wrongly as it turns out, rightly for what follows.

Madrigal’s command and adamantine assertion of how the off-stage dying butler Pinkbell has ruined the garden and her subsequent reform of it provide the motor rhythm and season to her residence in the house, based near Rottingdean. The core reason – Mrs St Maugham was initially intent on picking her brains and not engaging her – is Laurel.

Dilly Barlow dons this part like a white glove, instantly believable: imperiousness crusted in terror of distant thunder. There’s a hint of vulnerability; Barlow does her best to avoid the character’s cramped ring of changes, though there are possibilities. Bagnold has St Maugham justify her way of life: ‘Power and privilege make selfish people but gay ones.’ It isn’t challenged. Barlow plays St Maugham straight down the line of a faded tennis court, dreaming it new-striped. Then allows her a coda.

Here though Barlow gives something of the loneliness and quiet manipulative fright of a woman who’s warring with her widowed daughter, who’s fetched up St Maugham claims without warning.

Charley Harris’ glamorous, nervously warm Olivia, now both remarried and pregnant, leads a full sex life as her own daughter Laurel doesn’t hesitate to inform us. This  for 1955 was still novel and Bagnold is more than up to having Laurel and Madrigal later trade Freudianisms and frank discussion.

St Maugham can’t resist put-downs. ‘How can you wear beige, with your skin that colour?’ she salvos her daughter, now off to Suez  (clever, originally it was Aden) with her military husband through the emergency there. Bagnall rightly predicts people will soon forget Aden existed. But Suez? Jacqui Freeman’s adroit here: changes location and cuts the line.

Olivia’s first visit is kept secret from her daughter. Harris and Barlow with Egerton circling do what they can with this sketched set of skirmishes, renewed at the end, but deeper conflicts need teasing out and Bagnold supplies little in the way of these dynamics, or the add-on estrangements Laurel supplies. Perhaps victims of that understandable U.S. edit.

Bagnold though knows how to hold back some dynamics for the end, so the three generations doesn’t come together till then, nor Olivia and Laurel, which is both acute – it can only happen dramatically once – and supplies a climax after the great reveal which lies in fact elsewhere.

Lulu Freeman’s Laurel does much to humanize her character, though she’s given little to darken it. ‘I set fire to things’ she asserts flaringly. Really? There’s little in the dialogue to convince us; her screams offstage a ritual Bagnold’s not explored. Or why four half-hearted applicants flee on meeting her. Laurel’s not a stray from The Turn of the Screw. More characteristic is her delightful ‘Wit skips a generation.’ Freeman takes a radiantly sane route and shows presence, aplomb and real potential. An actor to watch.

Laurel’s more serious assertion of sexual assault at twelve in a park is never explored so can be easily dismissed later. Yet it’s the nub of her estrangement from her mother who doesn’t know any details. Something darker could have been made of this but Bagnold or her editor draws back, suggests it’s another fiction (but why did Laurel choose it?) and we’re left with an essentially healthy, clever but not particularly complicated young woman – she’s sixteen – who simply needs life. And for now a different maternal relationship.

She and Madrigal immediately pursue a language-game of allusive wit, hinting everything side-on. Laurel soon christens Madrigal ‘Boss’.

Miss Madrigal observes in her characteristically gnomic formality: ‘Laurel has good instincts. I think in time they will serve her well.’ You get the point. St Maugham’s response: ‘Miss Madrigal. I did not engage you as a fortune-teller’ suggests Laurel’s being genteely stifled. St Maugham’s allowed a Woolfian sympathy for others though. ‘Life without a room to oneself is a barbarity!’ she tells Madrigal.

Bagnold dispatches men deliciously. They’re offstage, ornamentally choric, providers of a plot-point, though we get two fine performances.

Beyond the terrorizing offstage Pinkbell who bullies everyone but Laurel, there’s Bob Murdock’s finely observed true-crime-obsessed servant Maitland (shared with Laurel), offering explanations and backstory. To his ‘You’re not the usual thing in governesses, are you?’ Madrigal’s riposte: ‘Are you the usual thing in servants?’ is meant to reassure us of something beyond his choric function.  Murdock seizes lines, almost trumpets their potential OTT-ness in a splendid break-out cameo; though a few quieter notes are welcome.

Murdock’s mordant, solidly servant-class character is allowed the obligatory Plautian wit without being an essential plot-maker. On Madrigal’s discussing her rivals’ disappearance he gnomically opines: ’Let us say that this is a nervous age.’ No danger of a wholly comic turn but Maitland, a conscientious objector who served five years for his beliefs, is relegated to someone who can’t take charge or believably hand in his notice.

It’s the last gasp of empire. Maitland can check out any time he likes but can never leave. Bagnold attempts the terrifying recumbent Pinkbell to balance the shifting class nuances but dramatically has to leave him offstage bedridden or he’d alter dynamics.

The other’s a latecomer, Judge McWhirrey (in this production his name’s not mentioned). He’s universally known as Judge or his nickname ‘Puppy’. You sense some prior relationship with St Maugham. ‘Alcohol in the middle of the day is exciting when one is thirty, but disastrous when one is seventy.‘ He’s seventy-five. That demurral sums him up.

Tony Bannister exudes the air of a naturally imposing man whom vocation’s shrouded, a reluctantly gimlet-eyed and squirrel-shy lawyer: quick to see danger and the scent of prison, frightened of pronouncing as he is of Pinkbell whom he modelled his hanging manner on. Except when on the bench.

And he’s confronted with such history, as is Miss Madrigal. His final summary of the household is that ‘too much happens here’ for him to keep visiting.

With Egerton we learn something of Madrigal’s toughness together with her lyric creed ‘The heart is a house with a room for every person it loves.’ It’s easy to warm to Egerton’s inwardness.  Whereas with everyone else save perhaps Laurel you don’t look for residual existence, with Madrigal you see someone who might blossom in an even finer play.

When Maitland asks her at one point: ‘What will you do now?’ Madrigal’s ‘Continue to explore the astonishment of living’ makes one ache to see what more she could do with astonishment. But this play – triumphantly about women where men are almost wholly relegated – has to be celebrated for what it is. Not quite the last drawing-room comedy as has been asserted. But the Janus-faced prophesy of plays that took thirty years to catch up.