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The Chalk Garden (Susan Elkin reviews)

Chichester Festival Theatre

Simon Higlet’s delightful set is what I shall remember most vividly about this revival of Enid Bagnold’s 1955 play, written when she was already in her mid sixties with National Velvet long behind her. It’s a garden room with conservatory at the back and we’re close to the sea on the Sussex coast. There’s lots of shingle, arranged in scallop pattern around the edge of the playing area. The room itself is full of retrospective 1950s clutter from magazine racks and rugs to sprawling sofas and a big garden work bench. It looks lovely and feels convincingly homely. Emma Laxton’s seagulls and other atmospheric sounds place the piece very firmly too.

The play itself, however, is wordy and wooden, especially in Acts I and 2 which provide a longish first half. It moves on a little more after the interval.

Mrs St. Maugham (Penelope Keith) has charge of her teenage granddaughter, Laurel (Emma Curtis) and employs a companion, Miss Madrigal, (Amanda Root) for her. Then Laurel’s mother, Olivia (Caroline Harker) decides to remove her child. Other characters include a Judge (Oliver Ford Davies) who’s a family friend and Maitland (Matthew Cottle) the man of all work. There is very little action in the quasi present. Instead we get a great deal of talking as various bits of back story emerge – I began to long for Hedda Gabler with her father’s pistols or Malvolio in yellow stockings and cross garters.

Penelope Keith is, of course, terrific as Mrs St. Maugham. She delivers those rapier thrust put-downs as well as Maggie Smith does except that Keith, as ever, does it with a disarming twinkle rather than a glare. That’s the deal with Keith. She is always the same – invariably cast in these bossy patrician (matrician?) roles. It’s enjoyable enough but don’t expect any surprises.

Exactly the same applies to Oliver Ford Davies. He does elderly, urbane, anguished judges, bishops, statesmen and the like, pretty well but it’s a very predictable performance.

The most interesting acting in this show comes from Amanda Root as the initially enigmatic Miss Madrigal. Her character has a pretty dramatic past, a great deal of unexpected knowledge, expertise and learning and is a complete contrast to other characters. Root finds a thoughtful, tense, unsmiling stillness in her so that we know almost from her first stiff-backed appearance at her job interview that there is a great deal more to this woman than meets the eye. Root makes her very intriguing and her silences are splendidly eloquent.

Matthew Cottle is quite engaging as the servant, who also has a past – which is not a secret but I’m afraid Emma Curtis is unconvincing as a curious, disinhibited, somewhat damaged teenager even for the 1950s.

Bagnold was a self indulgent writer and, I gather, many of her more flamboyant lines were coaxed out by her American editor. I’m glad, though, that “It’s time I looked at boys or I shan’t get the hang of it” and “Judges don’t age. Time decorates them” survived the cuts.

First published by Sardines:

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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