It’s that time of year again when a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of Chichester. We have three weekends lined up for the summer months, and on our first, we were accompanied by our friends the Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters. Lunch, natch, was in the Minerva Brasserie; it wouldn’t be the same without it. Normally we would see whatever was on offer in the Minerva Theatre as the matinee entertainment of the day, followed by the evening performance in the Festival Theatre. But this time, in something of a volte face, this time we did it the other way around.
Enid Bagnold; that’s not a name you hear bandied about much these days. But she had quite a life, not only writing several books and plays including that old favourite, National Velvet, but she was a nurse in the First World War, married the chairman of Reuters, and one of her great-granddaughters is Political Wife and businesswoman Samantha Cameron. The Chalk Garden is her semi-autobiographical play, first produced in 1955. It was inspired by her Sussex garden at Rottingdean, in a house previously owned by the painter Burne-Jones. With post-war domestic arrangements in something of a turmoil, including coping with a three-year-old granddaughter, she advertised for a lady to come and help. No qualifications needed, she just knew she would find the right person when the right person came along. One day the family received a visit from an old friend, a judge; and the recently hired nanny became fascinated in him – but in a terrified way. This mysterious reaction gave Bagnold the idea of writing a play where a stranger with an unknown past comes into a domestic situation; and she wanted to find out all about what had happened in that stranger’s past. Hence Enid Bagnold is the real Mrs St Maugham, and Miss Madrigal is the fictional version of her unknown nanny.
Mrs St Maugham is woefully inadequate at keeping her granddaughter Laurel on the straight and narrow because she doesn’t want to – she wants her to be an expressive, free thinker; but we the audience can see she’s actually a rude, graceless, pain in the backside arsonist who needs some firmness in her upbringing. Mrs St Maugham has a garden where nothing grows; she has the desire for a beautiful garden but not the talent. Enter Miss Madrigal, of whom we know nothing, except that she can not only tend a chalk garden in a productive way but also develop the good qualities of the unruly child. But when she clearly recognises the Judge when he pops round for lunch, just what is the connection? You’ll have to watch the play to find out.
From today’s perspective, this might sound like a rather over-genteel, twee little play, all cucumber sandwiches and endearingly precocious children. Not a bit of it. This is a tough little play; gently lick the strawberries and cream off the surface of the plot and you’ll find rivets of steel holding it together. It’s written with all the hallmarks of a 1950s drawing room comedy but with added bite; many of the lines are not only acerbic, they have a thin veneer of violence to them. Bagnold clearly has a fascination for the criminal mind; and with some surprisingly muscular turns of phrase this is a play that delivers way more than it promises.
Whilst there’s a lot to discover beneath the surface of this play, there’s also the obvious attraction of what’s on the surface. Enter the auditorium of the Festival Theatre and you’ll find that designer Simon Higlett has truly gone to town to create an immaculate house and garden-type set. Pleasant but not luxurious furnishings; a distant peek into a workaday back garden; a busy corridor where visitors come and go; and of course, a superb recreation of the front part of the main garden. Personally, I like blank stages where you can let your imagination run riot; but, if you can’t have that, then go the complete opposite and create a meticulously imagined set where no attention to detail has been missed. Absolutely stunning.
Penelope Keith is the obvious attraction about this production, and I’d be lying if I said her heading the cast didn’t play a significant part in wanting to see this show. I’d seen her eight times previously, over the years, most recently back in 2010 in The Rivals, and she never fails to delight. A part like Mrs St Maugham is bread-and-butter to Ms Keith but she tackles it full on with her beautiful enunciations and absolutely wicked comic timing. She brings Mrs St Maugham to life with complete effortlessness; which I’m sure takes a great effort.
There are some terrific supporting performances too. Amanda Root is excellent as the deliberately unforthcoming Miss Madrigal; kind, assertive, practical and intriguing. Matthew Cottle also delivers a fine performance as the wheedling and put-upon servant Maitland; part of the family but never really quite “fully accepted” in matters of taste and grace. Oliver Ford Davies is very comfortable as the Judge; used to the finer things in life, including getting his own way, but very irked when having to defend himself or face up to his responsibilities. And there’s a nice performance from Emma Curtis as the demanding but controllable Laurel.
An excellent choice for a 50s revival, and definitely worth making the trip to the South Coast!
Production photos by Catherine Ashmore