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FringeReview UK 2018

The Chalk Garden

Chichester Festival Theatre

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre


Low Down

Directed by Ayckbourn specialist Alan Strachan, Simon Higlett’s set is another character. It washes chalk and stone raggedly around the theatre. Natasha Chivers’ lighting plays on a bright south-coast summer feel to the day. Karen Large renders most things simple save Olivia’s second appearance in peach. Catherine Jayes’ music is attractive without calling too much attention to 1955 or now. Emma Laxton ensures there’s none of the boominess that beset some productions. Till June 16th.


Enid Bagnold’s known for two things. Her 1937 play National Velvet with 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 her 1955 work The Chalk Garden. Bagnold is far more interesting than any of these still-revealing anecdotes.


It’s a not very quietly feminist play whose manner is hopelessly pre-1956, yet that’s the year it opened in the UK after its Broadway triumph. In another way it’s quietly revolutionary and this must be kept sight of. Its doubleness is one of its subversive glories. Yet at the same time it almost needs rescuing from itself.


Born in November 1889, it’s not irrelevant that Bagnold practised being a liberated New Woman to the themes of one of her most interesting dramatic character, Miss Madrigal. Stuck in The Chalk Garden with Mrs St Maugham and her arsonist-seeming granddaughter Laurel. You might occasionally wonder if she’s stuck in a episode of an even more interesting play.


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.


Simon Higlett’s set is another character. It washes chalk and stone raggedly around the theatre so you might almost trip on it, and behind this wash the Festival’s thrust stage grows a nicely-dishevelled and naturalistic conservatory with various tables and reading-racks where genuinely old or repro newspapers and magazines of the time litter the periphery as much as the stones, like a civilised scurf. Behind is a glassed conservatory disappearing into the implied rooms of the house. It’s a bit south-coast Chekhov and so in a faint manner are the characters replete with servants and poorer relations. Natasha Chivers’ lighting plays on a bright south-coast summer feel to the day too, where though we traverse weeks, it seems summer throughout. Karen Large renders most things simple save Olivia’s second appearance in peach. Catherine Jayes’ music is attractive without calling too much attention to 1955 or now. It’s exactly what’s needed and Emma Laxton as always ensures there’s none of the boominess that beset some productions.


Alan Strachan’s famed for directing Ayckbourn plays and indeed seeing him pace one (How the Other Half Loves, recently) is watching a masterclass in manic timing. So the first thing this play suggests is its opposite. An amplitude, a breathing set of pauses, an unhurried sense that clearly Bagnold requires; as Strachan could easily have upped the pace of this two hours and five minutes traversal (slightly longer on the evening I saw it). Just sometimes I wish he would.


Bagnold’s play opened first in the U. S. since her agent had teamed her with Irene Selznick who hammered and collaborated with Bagnold on compressing the play. It’s been revived several times, most recently by Michael Grandage in 2008.


A lack of economy might inhibit too many though. At the start there’s two applicants for the post of granddaughter‘s governess: Victoria Willing’s chattery Little Lady or Sarah Crowden’s Third Lady who vanishes after sixty seconds. This seems indulgent of Bagnold. These strange beings of ‘Brighton and Hove’, Willings and Crowden, provide excellent cameos: Willings’ faux-innocent kleptomaniac, Crowden’s fantastically-attired day-tripping snob, both just pretending to apply. Donna Berlin’s Nurse similarly flits in about three times. Unless they were rushing back to perform in the Minerva in say an Ayckbourn play that simultaneously appeared in two theatres at once – as has happened of course – you feel they’re wasted.


It allows Amanda Root’s Miss Madrigal, quietly sitting, to pronounce on them, revealing a piercing shrewdness of course, but she does that soon enough elsewhere.


Root’s quietly emphatic Madrigal is the reason to see this play. Her 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.


Penelope Keith certainly dons this part like a white glove. It’s a regality nuanced in distant terror. There’s a vulnerability, with less of the Keith characteristics that endear her to Chichester and other audiences, but which can sometimes seem one-note. Bagnold has her justify her way of life: ‘Power and privilege make selfish people but gay ones’. It isn’t challenged.


Here though Keith 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. Caroline Harker’s glamorous and openly sexy Olivia, now both remarried and pregnant, leading 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 living in Aden with her military husband through the emergency there. Bagnall rightly predicts people will soon forget it existed.


Olivia’s first visit is kept secret from her daughter. Harker and Keith with Root circling do what the 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.


Bagnold though knows how to keep 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.


Emma Curtis’ Laurel, revelatory in her Ian Charleson Award nomination from Milton’s Comus at the Globe (in November 2016) 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 seem energetic whoops. Or why five half-heated applicants flee on meeting her. Laurel’s not a stray from The Turn of the Screw.


Her 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 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. Miss Madrigals observes ‘Laurel has good instincts. I think I 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 ensures there’s more narrative. Men? They’re offstage, ornamentally choric, or providers of a plot-point, though we get two fine performances.


Beyond the terrorizing offstage Pinkbell who bullies everyone but Laurel, there’s Matthew Cottle’s finely observed true-crime-obsessed servant Maitland, 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.


Cottle’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 a mini Admirable Crighton role, someone who can’t take charge or believably hand in his notice.


In this he resembles Else in Henry Reed’s contemporaneous Hilda Tablet Third Programme series. Elsa, the Viennese lyric soprano, who’s never allowed to sing anything but ‘music concrete renforcé’ by her twelve-tone composer companion, always moans ‘I shall go back to Vienna.’ She’s ritually yanked back from Heathrow. It’s the last gasp of empire, retainers retained. 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 completely alter the 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. ‘Alcohol in the middle of the day is exciting when one is thirty, but disastrous when one is seventy.‘ That demurral sums him up. Oliver Ford Davies make a shrouded, 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.


With Root 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 Root’s inwardness – her Hester Collyer here in The Deep Blue Sea in 2011 was memorable for the same reason. Whereas with everyone else save perhaps Laurel you don’t look for residual existence, with Madrigal you see someone who might blossom further 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. Chichester’s season of women dramatists is one of the treasurable things of 2018.