She’s done it again. After huge success with the likes of Grand Hotel, Titanic, Dogfight and Parade, producer Danielle Tarento brings another US export to the Southwark Playhouse. This time it’s Grey Gardens, a Tony-winning musical based on the cult 1975 documentary of the same name focusing on the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Edith (Big Edie) and Edie (Little Edie) Bouvier Beale. Where Kennedy became the First Lady of the United States, the two Bouvier Beale women were left behind to live in squalid conditions alongside their multiple cats, resulting in Albert and David Maysles’ scandalous documentary.
Even with its lack of dramatic impetus, this is a fascinating portrait of two eccentric characters, with a narrative in which past and present collide. Whilst the second act is a detailed replication of the 70s documentary, the first focuses on the Grey Gardens mansion during its wartime heyday in 1941. It means we not only revel in the charming characterisation, but the proceedings are tinged with sadness as we witness the rise and fall of this intriguing household. For all the humour, there is an underlying pensive stillness to the show, as if the characters are held suspended in time. This is only aided by Thom Southerland’s direction that ensures the show haunts as much as it delights.
It’s led by Jenna Russell, who gives a comic tour-de-force performance as both Big Edie in act one and Little Edie in act two. To the former, she brings glamour and overbearing charm; to the latter, she brings all the ticks and quirks that are recognisable from the documentary (her drawling “mother darrrrrling” especially), with characterisation that’s part deluded artistic revolutionary, part stroppy teen. Throughout, her portrayal of both characters is never less than human, never straying into caricature. Her stage partner, Sheila Hancock as the elderly, Miss Havisham-esque, Edith, can’t quite match her energy, though the chemistry between the two is scintillating, with shades of Gypsy in the show’s mother-daughter drama.
If the performances feel larger than life, then Tom Rogers’ set design feels a little cramped, though this only serves to highlight the prison-like quality of this beautiful, decaying home strewn with leaves as dry as the book’s witty one-liners. The thrust staging, though, does mean some moments are missed, and with the band far offstage, Scott Frankel’s enjoyable (if perhaps unnecessary) jazz score feels distant and lacks punch.
Grey Gardens, then, provides an education. For anyone whose knowledge of Little Edie is based purely on Jinkx Monsoon’s hilarious turn on Ru Paul’s Drag Race, this kooky musical comedy is utterly fascinating. And from Jenna Russell, there’s a masterclass in comic performance.
Watch: Grey Gardens runs at the Southwark Playhouse until 6th February.