Based on the 1975 cult classic documentary film of the same name, Grey Gardens tells the real life rise and fall of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s aunt and cousin, Edith and Edie Bouvier Beale. ★★★
The story of a former society mother and daughter living as recluses in a squalid mansion in the Hamptons with 52 cats is an unusual one for a musical. A quick listen to a few of daughter Little Edie’s killer lines in the second act and you’ll understand why this story screams out to be staged and why the documentary became such a camp classic.
The astonishing Sheila Hancock takes the role of the mother, Edie, a failed singing star who mournfully haunts their abode casting out barbed lines at her equally eccentric ex-socialite daughter. Jenna Russell plays “Little” Edie, a half demented vision in homemade fashions.
If you’ve seen the original film then you’ll probably already love these characters and their co-dependent relationship. Jenna Russell is definitely the star of the show with an impressive and warm comic turn as she careers around the stage in demented fashion. The characters are never mocked though and the show deals with their foibles with a warm-hearted fondness. The on-stage chemistry between Hancock and Russell is spellbinding to watch.
The first act begins with Little Edie’s engagement party to a Kennedy brother in 1941. Sadly, it plays out like an inferior version of “High Society” and feels turgid and derivative. The songs feel bland and all merge into one and the action limps along at a snail’s pace. Sheila Hancock isn’t seen for a good hour and although Jenna Russell is captivating and well supported by a very capable cast; it feels like we’re marking out time and waiting for the good stuff to arrive.
The second act mostly delivers and Russell is magnificent as she belts out some tightly written tunes (notably the hilarious “The Revolutionary Costume for Today” and “Another Winter in a Summer Town”). There are points where it’s hard not to almost weep with laughter and points where the poignancy almost drags out another kind of weeping fit. The claustrophobic set and small space of the stage heighten the atmosphere and there’s more than a touch of “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” as depicted by Sondheim. Unfortunately it still remains patchy in quality and there are still slack moments to the piece
It’s a shame that such a strongly themed show has such peaks and troughs but in spite of this it’s still a show worth catching. Just try and grit your teeth through the weaker first half and be sure that there’s good stuff to come. The high points are dazzling and the chance to see Sheila Hancock and Jenna Russell share a stage is a rare and priceless one.
Grey Gardens runs until the 6th of February 2016 Buy tickets here: http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/show/grey-gardens/