REVIEW: Grey Gardens @Southwark Playhouse

Sheila Hancock and Jenna Russell put in strong performances in a production that has the power to break the heart. 

This heartbreaking story of the rise and fall of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s aunt and cousin, Edith and Edie Bouvier Beale is equally fascinating to hear about as well as watch come to life.

Based on the original film that explored their lives as they went from American aristocrats in the 1940’s to recluses in the 1970’s is expertly and smoothly directed by Thom Southerland and succeeds in raising the audience’s sympathy towards these two vulnerable characters.

Setting the scene perfectly and adapting well to the glamour of the 1940’s to the complete change of fortunes in the 1970’s, the set designed by Tom Rogers manages to give the audience  an idea of their claustrophobic living style that also helps to focus their attention throughout.

At the heart of the story is of course the excellent performances of Sheila Hancock (Edith Bouvier Beale) and Jenna Russell (Edie Beale), who are both sharp throughout and really make the most of each line that they speak, adding to the audience’s understanding of their characters. While it would have been great for Hancock to have more to do in the second act, she manages to deliver a performance that while showcasing her characters flaws – still making her likeable enough for the audience to sympathise with her.

Meanwhile, Russell’s vocals are on stunning form particularly during ‘Another Winter in a Summer Town’, that is emotional and powerful to listen to, revealing Edie’s isolation and loneliness. But she also has a great sense of comic timing – sharp and pointed that is a delight for the audience.

Another mention should go to Rachel Anne Rayham as young ‘little’ Edie, whose vocals particularly in ‘Daddy’s Girl’ rival Russell’s and adds a rawness to her performance that keeps the attention on her. The look of devastation when she realises her father isn’t coming back and that her partner is leaving her in turn devastates the audience, as they understand her need to leave Grey Gardens and her mother.

What makes the production work is the relationship of mother and daughter at the centre of the story. At times there is frustration and anger, but there is also tenderness and loyalty that is really heartfelt.

While the music and lyrics for Grey Gardens is fantastic, watching this production it feels as though it would work better as a play rather than a musical – as it feels as though the songs distract from the story and so it can feel over the top and not necessary to the understanding of the characters or the plot.

There is great intensity throughout and plenty to hold the interest of the audience from beginning to end, but it does feel as though it leaves more questions than answers, with vague details about what happened in the years between 1941 and 1973.

Overall, it is a very interesting production that would be stronger as a play rather than a musical but features some high quality performances.

Grey Gardens is on at the Southwark Playhouse until the 6th February.