The eccentric Mrs. St. Maugham potters about her country estate, watching over her granddaughter Laurel (who seems to be developing a taste for pyromania) and her beloved garden, even though nothing she plants there seems to thrive. The troubled adolescent, whose mother Olivia has recently announced her intention to marry the father of her expected child, has frightened away several governesses until the enigmatic Miss Madrigal is hired, a woman with a secret past. Upstairs, the bedridden former butler still manages to exert his control over the household, including Maitland, the new manservant; the fact that he has served a prison sentence in the past is known only to Laurel. Mrs. St. Maugham invites a former beau, now an elderly judge, to lunch - and Miss Madrigal recognises him....
I admit I got my wires slightly crossed here. I impressed everyone at work with my culture and erudition saying that we were off to see yet another play by Brecht – and then of course realised that I had got “The Chalk Garden” mixed up with “The Caucasian Chalk Circle”, so there was a bit of backtracking to do the next day at the water cooler! Durr!
What I got (rather than the expected gloom) was a slightly odd mix of 50s high comedy, country house thriller and deep psychological brooding – not perhaps seen from the best angle, thanks to the Donmar’s rather oddly placed balcony, but I can assure you that the top of Penelope Wilton’s head is very pretty indeed! It did take me about 20 minutes to re-jig my mindset to accommodate the style of the play from what I was expecting – and even then I think I was slightly wrong-footed by the fact that the first part of this play borders perilously close on farce. Just as I had sorted myself out and re-tuned my ear to the sheer speed of what, had it been played very slightly slower, would obviously have been incredibly witty and dextrous dialogue (don’t laugh at one line or you’ll miss the next – Maggie Tyzack’s first line is a shouted enquiry from offstage about the possible whereabouts of her false teeth!), the mood of the play darkens and it all gets a bit “sub-Agatha-Christie”. A directorial decision had been made to present all three acts with no intervals between, which I think helped the thrust of the play a great deal – had it been presented more “traditionally”, a lot of the brooding “will she, won’t she?” tension could well have gone for nothing. But it does need to slow down a little so you can actually relax into the dialogue.
In terms of performances, it was a straight three-horse race between Maggie Tyzack, Penelope Wilton and the astonishing Felicity Jones. The latter can’t be more than in her very early 20’s, but she gave an incredibly powerful performance – half gangly, spoilt girl, half creepy, intense young woman – and was incredibly “watchable” from start to finish. She’s certainly been taught that “less is definitely more”, because most of her acting seemed to be taking place in her eyes. Maggie Tyzack wobbled about the stage rather like a latter-day Lady Bracknell, fussing and carping and worry-budgeting like an elderly, slightly bedraggled hen with only one chick, denying reality with every breath. And Penelope Wilton – winner of one of my They Who Can Do No Wrong awards – just WAS. This is definitely an actress who knows the value of being still and communicating with her expressions – this was a wonderful performance of repressed intensity, often delivered in a flat monotone of supreme world-weariness. I’ve always thought that PW is one of our neglected treasures; in a just world, she’d be up there being feted with the greats like Judi Dench. Sign the petition now! Come on – she deserves an award just for having been married to that Uberswine Ian Holm.
Loved the set as well – a vast conservatory, decked out with shelves, living room furniture, potting racks and all the detritus that you’ll find in the “engine room” of a fanatical gardener. The eponymous chalk garden is not seen – merely suggested by an all encompassing haze of white through the windows, like the fog that clouds all our judgements. Just one tiny note for the props buyer – when the script refers to Madonna lilies, make sure that you don’t use Lilium longiflorum; some nitpicker with ivy leaves on his business card is bound to notice.
What the critics thought:
(probably the first time EVER that Nicholas De Jongh has given five stars!)
(the director has obviously put in an interval since the previews)