Jenna Russell and Sheila Hancock. Photo credit: Scott Rylander
Happy New Year everyone! It has been a hectic first week back at work (after being in the Netherlands to visit my family for over two weeks) so I'm a bit behind on my blogging, but I've got some very exciting posts planned for you guys in the next few weeks around books and theatre (of course) as well London-based events and exhibitions, the latter of which I'll be focusing much more prominently this year. But first things first, I had my first theatre outing of 2016 last week, which was Grey Gardens at Southwark Playhouse.
You all know by now that I love the Southwark Playhouse, having enjoyed a variety of shows there in 2015 from the creepy Carrie and mesmerising Grand Hotel to the flamboyant Xanadu (I see a musical theme running through my visits). So when I heard about the musical adaptation of the documentary around the eccentric characters of Edith and Edie Bouvier Beale (cousin and aunt of Jackie Kennedy Onassis), which won 3 Tony Awards across the pond, I was certainly intrigued. And when I read the cast announcement, which included Jenna Russell, Sheila Hancock and Aaron Sidwell, I was sold.
A documentary isn't the most likely source material for a musical adaptation, yet there is certainly an interesting story to tell about the ups and downs in the lives of mother-and-daughter duo Edith and Little Edie. The first half of the show focuses on their time together in the 1940s, with newcomer Rachel Anne Rayham taking on the role of young Edie as she's about to get engaged to Joe Kennedy (Aaron Sidwell), and Jenna Russell playing her mother. The second half is much more morose, as 32 years later the two still live together in the now fallen down Grey Gardens, without husbands but surrounded by cats and debris of lives not fully lived. In this part Jenna Russell plays the daughter while Sheila Hancock takes on the role of the elder Edith.
The story is perhaps not the most logical one for a musical and this was unfortunately painfully obvious throughout me watching it. I didn't connect much to the show at all, and it was only the silly moments with the young children in the first part and the poignant scenes in the second half that made a true impact on me. I can't help but feel that the story would've had a far greater impact on me had it been a straight play and a shorter one at that. The music while entertaining at the time wasn't remotely memorable and I didn't feel it added anything of value to the production as a whole (except for making me more interested to see it in the first place as my personal preference generally ranks musicals above plays).
What was remarkable in this production were the astonishing performances from the majority of its leads. Musical theatre darling Jenna Russell proved once more why everything she is in is such a hot ticket right now, as her powerful and intimate performance – I even saw her make eye contact with fellow audience members – sent chills down my spine. Rachel Anne Rayham was the unexpected stand-out of the night; recently out of drama school her mesmerising vocals made the mundane first act worth sitting through. And then there was Aaron Sidwell, who has come a long way since his Loserville days (a show which was one of my theatrical highlights of 2012). Both as the selfish Joe Kennedy in the first act and the sweet yet slightly odd character of Jerry in the second half, he was thrilling to watch.
In all, Grey Gardens was okay but didn't wow me and it were only the beautiful performances, from Russell and Rayham in particular, which lifted what could've been a very disappointing first theatre trip of 2016. However, if the moments of roaring laughter and emotional engagement around me are anything to go by, I'm one of few with this opinion and this is yet another musical triumph for Southwark Playhouse.
Grey Gardens is running at Southwark Playhouse until 6 February 2016. You can book tickets here.