National Velvet writer created play based on experience

REVIEW

 The Chalk Garden, by Enid Bagnold

 Chichester Festival Theatre

June 3 2018

Enid Bagnold was the author of the children’s novel National Velvet, the 1944 film version of which made Elizabeth Taylor a star at the age of 12. She wanted to achieve equal success as a playwright, and after an inauspicious start with her first play Gertie she sat down to write The Chalk Garden, seen at Chichester Festival Theatre.

This was set in her own home at Rottingdean in East Sussex. In married life Enid Bagnold was Lady Jones as her husband was Sir Roderick Jones, the former boss of Reuters. The Chalk Garden was based on her own real-life experience. On returning home to North End House, Rottingdean, from a trip to the US she found that all the staff had quit, and that Sir Roderick’s son Timothy, his young wife Pandora and their three-year-old daughter Annabel had moved in.

To find a governess for Annabel, Enid Bagnold put an ad in the local Sussex papers and was inundated with replies. On a whim she hired an eccentric woman with white hair who stayed aloof from family conversation and strove to wrap Annabel in an inner world of silence. The writer invented a back-story for the governess and the plot thickened when Judge Sir James Cassels told the tale of a strange woman at a lunch party.

Much of this has found its way into the plot of The Chalk Garden. Mrs St Maughan (Penelope Keith) needs a companion for her arsonist teenage granddaughter Laurel (a sparkling Emma Curtis), so she has placed an ad in the local paper. At the start we are introduced to three of the applicants in the lovingly detailed drawing room of Mrs St Maughan’s Sussex home.

The singular Miss Madrigal seems reluctant to take the job when she is appointed. But she soon shows high-flown horticultural skills in giving advice on the lime and chalk garden, where Mrs St Maughan is floundering as she takes bad advice from her retired butler. He too lives in the house with a nurse and, although he remains unseen, wields an unfortunate influence on what happens, and goes wrong, in the garden.

Add to this list of characters Maitland (Matthew Cottle), the ever-busy valet who has served time in prison; Olivia (Caroline Harker), the estranged and re-married daughter who has come to take back Laurel; and the Judge (Oliver Ford Davies), who comes to lunch. There is clearly a history between the Judge and Miss Madrigal, who insists on having her lunch on a separate table with Laurel.

The Chalk Garden was initially rejected by British theatre, but found a place on Broadway through Irene Selznick, daughter of movie mogul Louis B Meyer. It opened in October 1955, the day before Enid’s 66th birthday, with Hollywood star Gladys Cooper as Mrs St Maughan and Siobhan McKenna as Miss Madrigal. The sets and costumes were designed by Cecil Beaton.

The play was a critical success and immediately producer Binkie Beaumont, who had originally rejected it, cabled and offered to stage it in London. A year later it opened at the Haymarket. Edith Evans played Mrs St Maughan (as Enid had wanted for the Broadway production); Peggy Ashcroft was Miss Madrigal; and the play was directed by John Gielgud. Since then The Chalk Garden has become established in the theatrical calendar – with a film in 1964, directed by Ronald Neame, starring Edith Evans, Deborah Kerr, Hayley Mills, and John Mills as Mrs St Maughan. Miss Madrigal, Laurel and Maitland respectively.

This Chichester production is good, old-fashioned Festival fare, with Penelope Keith on form in a role which is both jaunty and wistful. Amanda Root is dark and enigmatic; and Matthew Cottle is ebullient as the valet. The set is splendidly Sussex with great attention to detail. It has been said of Enid Bagnold that she links Oscar Wilde with Alan Ayckbourn. And this play, is assuredly Ayckbournish.

www.cft.org.uk

Nick Keith

Ribald Restoration comedy comes with pace aplenty

The Country Wife

Minerva, Chichester 

June 2018

William Wycherley was an extremely ribald playwright in Charles II’s Restoration England. Indeed his 1675 play The Country Wife, which opened at the Drury Lane Theatre (newly restored by Christopher Wren), was banned for 171 years from 1753 because it was thought to be too risqué. It was performed again in London in 1924, and the first American production was in 1931.

So it seems adventurous for Chichester of all places to revive it at the Minerva, where it runs from mid June to early July. However the prospects are tempting for the modern theatre-goer, with direction by Jonathan Munby, who directed the acclaimed King Lear with Sir Ian McKellen (which transfers to London’s West End in July).

Horner, a wicked womaniser, decides that his affairs with married women have become too well-known to husbands. So he determines to hide his pursuit of wives by faking impotence, to convince husbands that their womenfolk are safe in his hands, so to speak. So, egged on by his laddish companions, his sexual escapades continue unabated with willing wives such as Lady Fidget (Belinda Lang).

Horner is unequivocally sexist, and shows little respect for the women he seduces: “I’d advise my friends to keep [women] rather than marry,” he says. And “Tis my maxim, he’s a fool that marries; but he’s a greater that does not marry a fool.”

THE COUNTRY WIFE at CFT Photos by Manuel Harlan

His attention is caught by a pretty young country wife, Margery (Susannah Fielding) who has been brought to the big city by Pinchwife, her much older husband. Pinchwife goes to great trouble to keep his new wife out of mischief and away from the new thrills of city life, which she is eager to experience. At one point, he even dresses her up as a young man, in cap and blazer, but Horner is not fooled and makes unabashed advances to the ‘lad’.

Pinchwife’s sister Alithea (Jo Herbert) provides a counterpoint to all this naughtiness. Although engaged to Sparkish (Scott Karin), she is pursued by Harcourt (Ashley Zhangazha) who is determined to win her as his wife.

Certainly, the pace, performances and dialogue are all fast, in every sense of the word. Double dealings and double entendres abound; there is much entering and exiting the stage at speed through different doorways, and hiding people in nearby rooms and closets.

Lex Shrapnel plays the lead role Horner with the speed and energy of James Corden in One man two guv’nors, and the whole cast throw themselves into this sexual melting pot with abandon. But context is important too, and it is somewhat regrettable that the play is set in the 21st century.

Although fakery is part and parcel of today’s society, in a sense modern manners and behaviour seem more negative and introspective than the crude confidence of the 1660s and 1670s. In those days, the married women were far from MeToo; indeed they connived with and actively took part in the sexual proclivities of the men.

It might have been sensible to set the play 200 years later in the 1960s and 70s, when there was another sexual revolution; when men wore colourful clothes and frilly shirts; and when people spoke in tongues, often fuelled by drugs and alcohol. OK, that is still around today, but with much less joie de vivre and optimism. Nevertheless, it must be said that this production has a lot going for it and is great fun.

www.cft.org.uk

 Nick Keith