Review: Sheila Hancock Is Disgusting, Demanding And Oddly Charming In Grey Gardens

Grey Gardens at Southwark Playhouse ★★★★★

Lettie Mckie
By Lettie Mckie Last edited 25 months ago
Review: Sheila Hancock Is Disgusting, Demanding And Oddly Charming In Grey Gardens Grey Gardens at Southwark Playhouse 5
Sheila Hancock and Jenna Russell in Grey Gardens © Scott Rylander

Although relatively unknown this side of the pond, 1975 documentary Grey Gardens is a cult classic in the States. It records the extraordinary later life of Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter of the same name. Estranged relations of Jackie Kennedy, the pair lived together at Grey Gardens in the Hamptons: a condemned, filthy mansion that they had let decline from a prized 1940s high society home.

The London début of the musical version of their story is currently playing at Southwark Playhouse, directed by Thom Southerland and starring Sheila Hancock and Jenna Russell. With a live jazz band playing off stage and a beautiful set by Tom Rogers that perfectly encapsulates the decayed glamour of their surroundings, this show is far bigger than its humble 'fringe' status.

Mixing songs inspired by the Great American Songbook era of Porter and Gershwin and a script that deftly avoids artifice, the show is an intelligent emotional roller coaster with a heartbreaking mother-daughter relationship at its core. The brainchild of collaborators Doug Wright (book), Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics) it is split across two acts, the first set in 1941 during the house's heyday and the second in 1975. It attempts to understand how two such privileged, beautiful women end up living their lives in loneliness and squalor.

The fictional first half sees Russell double up as 'big' Edie who overshadows her daughter (Rachel Anne Rayham). Russell is alternatively bold and vulnerable, her huge voice and stage presence holding the story together which sees the pair's fortunes start to turn and imagines the tragedy of a broken engagement in 'little' Edie's past. There is just a hint of big Broadway in the cleverly choreographed musical numbers and the Act delightfully brings to life a long lost golden age in the lives of our protagonists.

The only issue in this otherwise fun, intensely moving production is that the character of 'little' Edie in the second act is unrecognisable from the younger debutant version we have previously met. Something of a cult icon, the drawling, bald, colourfully dressed 1975 daughter from the documentary is perfectly captured by Russell but this character emerges out of the blue.

Really this makes no difference, as the irascible, eccentric, slightly gruesome characters created by Russell and Hancock in the second act are so mesmerising that this tiny flaw can be forgiven. Hancock's performance is well worth the wait. She is disgusting, demanding, elegant, tragic and oddly charming as the bed-ridden old lady who feeds corn to the handyman and keeps 52 cats.

Together she and Russell create moment after captivating moment in the largely verbatim duologue taken straight from the documentary. The result is carefully woven picture of the glorious past and tragic end of two remarkable women that reminds us both of life's agonising frustrations and the enduring love between people who share it.

Grey Gardens is on at Southwark Playhouse, 77-85 Newington Causeway SE1 6BD until 6 February. Tickets £25/£20. Londonist saw this show on a complimentary ticket.

Last Updated 10 January 2016