Monday, January 11, 2016

Cat people and corns: Grey Gardens @swkplay


Perhaps the central message in Grey Gardens is that no matter what you do, no matter how much you fight it, you will turn into your mother. Particularly since Jenna Russell (in a a star turn) plays both Little Edie and Big Edie in this show, based on the the Beales of Grey Gardens

It’s only early in the year, but this has to be one of the funniest things to happen on stage in London for 2016. It also serves as a wonderful vehicle showing just how darn funny Russell can be.

Grey Gardens is a musical based on the documentary of the same name. The documentary, released in 1975, caused a sensation with its frank depiction of two old cat women living in squalor with cats and raccoons. They also just happened to be related to Jacqueline Onassis.


But the musical attempts to answer the question that anyone asks after watching the documentary, which is “how did it get to be like this?”

The musical takes its cue from little Edie’s comment, “It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present.” It presents the characters in the first act as what they might have been like in 1941. In the second act the show mirrors the action from the documentary. But the characters from the first half continue to haunt the memories of the Edies in the second.

The music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie mimic the musical styles of the time in the first half. But take a more eccentric and inspired turn in the second. Jenna Rusell is so lively and funny that she only has to sing the line “da da da da dum” and the audience explodes with laughter.


Sheila Hancock as big Edie is a revelation.  She is older than Edith Bouvier Beale ever was. And delivers a wrenching and tender number “Jerry Likes My Corn” about a local boy who eats her corn with her.

The lines from the documentary are delivered by both Russell and Hancock talking to the audience. They look at the audience right in the eye. They speak with such intensity and uncanny similarity to the originals that it is both unnerving and hysterical.

This is mostly a character study as there is little plot to make of. But the piece avoids descending into a camp spectacle and places the mother-daughter relationship at its heart.



The rest of the cast serve the show well too. Rachel Anne Rayham is a delight as the young little Edie desperate to get out of her mothers cabaret circus. full of optimism and promise that is about to be crushed.

The production is probably the most sophisticated (and claustrophobic) to be staged at the Southwark Playhouse. Tom Rogers set design is something to behold (and ponder how to navigate as you head for the exit) with its staircases, piano and clutter.

Directed by Thom Southerland, produced by Danielle Tarento with musical direction by Michael Bradley.

The show has sold out its run through to 6 February at the Southwark Playhouse, but day seats are available. Perhaps like little Edie, it also has ambitions for a bigger future.

⭐︎⭐︎⭐︎⭐︎

First impressions with Johnnyfoxlondon follow:

Photo credits: Scott Rylander