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.