At first the setting of Grey Gardens, the hotly-anticipated musical at the Southwark Playhouse starring Jenna Russell and Sheila Hancock, struck me as a kind of twisted fantasy of my own future: swanning around a crumbling mansion, clad in vintage nightgowns, with fifty-two cats. In all seriousness, the show, based on the cult documentary by the Maysles brothers about ex-First Lady Jackie Kennedy’s eccentric cousin and aunt, is a homage to the quirky outsider, even as it emphasises the sadness of what could have been.
The show has a book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie, and employs a number of twists on the original documentary. After a brief introduction to elderly Edith Bouvier Beale (Sheila Hancock) and her daughter Little Edie (Jenna Russell), who live together in the decaying Grey Gardens (a beautifully designed, detailed set by Tom Rogers), we are taken back in time to the 1940s when Little Edie (Rachel Anne Rayham) is preparing to formally announce her engagement to Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr, hoping that her mother (Jenna Russell), who loves to sing, won’t steal her thunder. This first act is largely fictional, although the real Little Edie did claim that if Joseph Kennedy hadn’t been killed in the Second World War, she would have been First Lady instead of her cousin Jackie. Unfortunately things don’t go to plan, and the engagement comes to nothing, leading into the second act, where Little Edie, after some time in New York, has returned to the family home to live with her mother.
Jenna Russell is undoubtedly the star of the show: she shines as the older Edie in the first act and excels as Little Edie in the second, delighting the audience with “The Revolutionary Costume For Today”. I haven’t seen the documentary on which Grey Gardens was based, but I’ve heard from those that have that her performance is spookily accurate. I was lucky enough to be sitting in the front row and she actually had tears in her eyes during the poignant number, “Another Winter in a Summer Town”; an unforgettable moment, yet she is also able to bring out the comedic aspects of the character.
Sheila Hancock isn’t the greatest singer, but her overall performance is strong and really works within the context of the show. I was particularly impressed with Rachel Anne Rayham as the young Little Edie, as well as Aaron Sidwell who played two completely different roles, Joseph Kennedy and Jerry, the kindhearted teenager who helps out the older women in Act 2.
Musically, a lot of the score is pleasant but unobtrusive, but some tracks stand out, and it all works well within the piece as a whole. The switch in tone between the first and second acts is dramatic; the first an old-fashioned romance, the second a quirky comedy, but somehow it all comes together.
What I loved about this musical is that there are so many different ways to interpret the pair’s lives: are they to be pitied, envied, or something in between? For me, I was largely left with a sense of admiration for these women who, for all their troubles, had managed to carve out unconventional lives for themselves. Whether intentional or not, I detected an undercurrent of feminism in the piece: in the first act, Little Edie’s grandfather exhorts his daughters to “marry well”; her fiance cannot cope with the suggestion that she has behaved unconventionally; her father is held up as some sort of moral arbiter despite the fact that he has run off with another woman. The two Edies have been able to escape this masculine judgement to live independently together (the older Edith’s anthem “The Cake I Had” is almost triumphant), even if their independence is inextricably mixed with a mutual dependence on one another. If their lives are ultimately tragic, perhaps that’s a reflection of the society that wouldn’t accept them.
A deeply unconventional musical, Grey Gardens is worth seeing for Jenna Russell’s performance alone, as well as being a fascinating and bittersweet look at mother and daughter relationships.