Number 3, West End Road, East Hampton, occupies a comfortable position on what might be considered the fashionable end of Long Island, that spit of territory on America’s Atlantic coast stretching up from New York which has for a century or more been the summer retreat for the wealthy wishing to escape the heat of the nearby metropolis.
Built in 1897 in a traditional style on a 1.7 acre plot the property, Grey Gardens, might have languished in graceful obscurity were it not for the attentions of the Suffolk County Health Department who, in late 1971, turned their attentions on the house – which had become overrun by cats, infested with fleas, and filled with rubbish – and in doing so shone a spotlight on its inhabitants; the elderly Edith (Big Edie) Ewing Bouvier Beale and her middle-aged daughter Edith (Little Edie) Bouvier Beale, the aunt and the first cousin, respectively, of former US First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
A 1975 documentary film on the house and its inhabitants titled Grey Gardens cemented the story into the public consciousness, gaining something of a cult status, and it is on this that Doug Wright, Scott Frankel, and Michael Korie based their 2006 multi-Tony Award-winning musical which has just received its European premiere at The Southwark Playhouse.
Although the main characters are real, the events of the play are listed as being based on both fact and fiction.
Following the prologue (set in 1973 the first time we get to hear the ‘big tune’ – ‘The Girl Who Has Everything’) the action moves to 1941 where ‘Big Edie’ (an award-winningly good Jenna Russell) is readying the house for the arrival from New York of her lawyer husband who is due on the 5.15 train. Little Edie (Rachel Anne Rayham) has fallen for dashing serviceman Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr (Aaron Sidwell) and both sets of parents, the Kennedy’s and the Bouvier Beale’s, are due to meet for the first time.
As the day passes the relationships become more fraught, Big Edie relating some inconvenient truths to her daughters suitor, giving him second thoughts on the efficacy of the relationship. Word from Big Edie’s husband that he is leaving her for his mistress, via a telegram from Mexico to Little Edie, is the final straw for Kennedy Jnr and both mother and daughter are now single.
Act two shifts to 1973, and mother and daughter are living in squalor in a house full of cats. Jenna Russell also shifts parts, now playing the middle-aged daughter, Little Edie (to Sheila Hancock’s Big Edie) and opens the act with the sort of number that in the 1950’s would have been encored there and then, the hilarious ‘The Revolutionary Costume For Today’.
The rest of the act is a study in character between the two women, and although there are other roles – notably Aaron Sidwell unrecognisable as the sweet, well-meaning Jerry – the act is theirs and tells a tale of co-dependence. The song ‘Another Winter in a Summer Town’ is truly heartbreaking.
Russell and Hancock radiate class at the head of a cast which is never less than first rate, and the production values, direction, choreography, and musical direction are all praise-worthy.
My only slight gripe (and it’s a VERY minor one in an otherwise wonderful production) is to do with the show itself which, although it has a sparkling book and lyrics, and tuneful, accessible score, could probably do with a little tightening here and there.
That being said, if the rest of the musicals London has to offer in 2016 are even half as good as Grey Gardens, we’ll be in for a bumper year.