Review – The Chalk Garden, Chichester Festival Theatre, 9th June 2018

The Chalk GardenIt’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.

Penelope Keith as Mrs St MaughamEnid 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.

Amanda Root as Miss MadrigalMrs 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.

Emma Curtis as Laurel and Matthew Cottle as MaitlandFrom 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.

Oliver Ford Davies as the JudgeWhilst 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.

Mrs St MaughamPenelope 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.

Miss MadrigalThere 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

Review – The Deep Blue Sea, Festival Theatre, Chichester, August 20th 2011

Chichester Festival TheatreOur second helping of Rattigan last Saturday was the much acclaimed “The Deep Blue Sea”, originally produced in 1952 in a run that lasted 513 performances. This was a time when Rattigan’s career was really riding high, and in fact many commentators think this is his best play. In “Rattigan’s Nijinsky”, with which we matinéed earlier, Rattigan says “my women are women, and they’re bloody well-written ones”. Hester Collyer, of whom we see a very turbulent day in a rather depressing life, is probably the epitome of this statement. Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, the play starts with her failed gassing suicide attempt and ends with her again turning the gas on but this time merely to light the fire. The character progression prompted Mrs Chrisparkle to announce that the play was a supreme statement of optimism. I just found it hard to get past the sadness that Hester wanted to commit suicide.

The Deep Blue SeaWhat is notable about this production is the way it faithfully represents the 1950s and presents that rather dark age in a completely ungimmicky and unembellished way. If you look at the photo of the 1952 set, it’s virtually identical to the set at Chichester. The main difference is that the gas fire is now downstage so that Hester more or less has to look the front stalls in the eye when she turns the fire on, whereas before it was more discreetly positioned against the upstage wall. The furnishings are practical rather than comfortable; the costumes reflect the repressed and impoverished surroundings. Philip Franks the director has adhered to the three-act format – morning, afternoon and evening of this rather enormous day – and not caved in to the modern desire for the symmetrical structure of one central interval. You feel as though this is exactly how this play would have been presented sixty years ago.

Amanda RootYou must draw your own conclusions at to the precise reason for Hester’s suicide attempt, but her two options for bliss are current companion Freddie, who was probably once a bit of a wartime hero but is now an idle drunk, and previous husband William, who is willing to accept her back, but as a possession rather than because of love. Amanda Root’s Hester is brave, calm, sometimes in control, often in agonies of despair. As the two men interact with her you see her formulating her views on them, shoring herself up for the future, and gaining strength from every resolve she makes. It’s a very good performance; tugging at the heartstrings at the right times whilst maintaining whatever dignity she can muster as a failed suicider.

John HopkinsJohn Hopkins is Freddie; another good performance combining the roguish charm that presumably first attracted Hester with an irascible post-war self-disappointment which has resulted in his becoming a waster. In the RAF he had been a dashing test pilot; with the benefit of hindsight you would now consider him a prime candidate for Gulf War Syndrome or a possible beneficiary of Help for Heroes. There were times in the first act when I felt John Hopkins rushed and garbled his lines a little – so much so that I found some of his speeches a bit hard to follow. And that’s before the character had had too much to drink. Still he very much looked the part and the agonies that Freddie feels came across as real and disturbing.

Anthony CalfAt the other end of the social spectrum, Anthony Calf’s Sir William Collyer is the embodiment of buttoned-up stiff-upper-lippishness, his ultra-respectability in the rather slovenly surroundings effectively suggesting that their two lives are long past the chance of converging. When he offers to take her back, pointing out that she is devaluing herself by staying with Freddie, there is barely any increase the warmth of his voice, and you know that it’s not a question of love. It’s another very effective performance; I only know Anthony Calf as Strickland in TV’s New Tricks, and I just got a sneaking suspicion that he feels comfortable playing rather cold, authoritarian figures. Was the whole role just a little too easy for him?

Encouraged by the slightly mysterious Mr (Don’t call me Doctor) Miller who attends to her medical needs, Hester’s decision to let both men go their separate ways and to live her life alone is the big positive step at the end of the play. However, despite its forward-looking conclusion, it’s not the kind of play where you bounce out of the auditorium at the end and click your heels jauntily on the way to the car park. It’s a deep, thoughtful and moving play, and this production gives it the full respect it deserves.

I don't believe it!Celebrity news: whilst I nipped to the Gents, Mrs Chrisparkle queued to pre-order interval drinks, and in line in front of her was none other than Richard Wilson. That’s twice we’ve been in the same audience as him. Naturally when she told me later I had to let rip an “I Don’t Believe It”, which is the ordained form of response whenever his name is mentioned. One last piece of advice – if you pre-order tea and coffee for the interval, by the time you get to drink it, it’s cold. Stick to the Chenin Blanc in future.